Smile Politely

Urbana minister counsels after 9/11

John Sims is not a hero.                                       

At least, this is what he tells people, even though many would say his actions speak otherwise.  

Sims has been an ordained United Methodist minister for the past 40 years and is the pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Urbana, Ill., where he serves a congregation of 333. 

A typical day has no set routine. He has preset meetings, but he mostly responds to immediate context situations, such as visiting Carle Foundation Hospital when a parishioner is undergoing surgery or meeting with a parishioner seeking counseling.        

As a chaplain for the Champaign Fire Department for seven years, Sims is on call and responds to fires, traffic accidents and natural disasters and offers counseling to firefighters.

He is a man of many uniforms. While he wears a simple suit and tie in the office, on Sundays, Sims wears his black liturgical robes, accompanied by a stole worn around the neck. Most of the time, his stole reflects the color of the liturgical season, but Sims also has stoles he wears for special services, such as a stole that is covered with images of children of every race that he wears for services relating to children. When he responds to fires, Sims wears a heavy fire-retardant coat and helmet for protection. As a disaster chaplain, Sims wears an outfit that resembles a military uniform and hat.

In September 2001, Sims was on call as a disaster chaplain for the National Transportation Safety Board. On Sept. 11, his pager went off no more than a minute after the first hijacked plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.

At first, he and his colleagues believed it was an airline disaster. Only later did they find out it was a terrorist attack.  

“I had physically prepared for it − physically and mentally prepared for it,” Sims said. “All the bags were packed. Everything was waiting by the front door, that kind of thing. After the second plane flew into the towers and the towers came down, then we realized it was a terrorist attack. That was a little more difficult to process.”

One would never know he has witnessed such deep grief and tragedy. His wide smile and hearty laugh make one feel immediately comfortable around him, as if he is an old friend. He is 64 years old and 6 feet 6 inches tall. When he speaks, his voice is determined and confident. His blue eyes have a hint of green in them and are framed by wire-rimmed glasses. His eyes take on an intense and focused look when he speaks of his time in New York at ground zero, and the deeply lined corners of his eyes have taken the toll of the sadness and horrors he has seen in his lifetime.

Sims is no stranger to grief. During the Vietnam War he served as a chaplain’s assistant, and his job was to assist returning GIs with rest and relaxation and to assist wives, husbands, girlfriends and boyfriends as they waited for loved ones to return.

“Most of it was emotional because after waiting wives and girlfriends would be united with their GIs, boyfriends and husbands, there would always be one or two women still waiting there,” Sims said. “They would look at me when everybody had gotten off the plane and say ‘Where’s my boyfriend? Where’s my husband?’ “

That is when Sims would check the very seriously injured list and the latest killed in action list, and nine times out of 10, he would find the loved one’s name. He would walk with the women  into another room and tell them their husbands or boyfriends had been seriously injured or killed.

It was this emotional trauma that led Sims to pursue a career in ministry.

Sims grew up in Belleville, Ill. He attended college at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and attended a seminary and received his Ph.D. in Kansas City. Before serving two years in the army, however, he had never really considered a career in ministry, and he held an Ill. teaching certificate for a number of years. It was only after serving in the army that Sims chose a different career path.

“When I was drafted and through that emotional trauma, I really began to look at myself and what I really wanted to do, and that’s when I believe God stepped in,” Sims said. “I responded to God’s call for me.”

It was a different tragedy that motivated Sims to volunteer as disaster chaplain for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Fourteen years ago, Sims’ son Adam, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was on his way home from St. Louis when he was killed in a car accident. He was traveling north on I-57 when a southbound driver lost control and crossed the median. The driver’s car went airborne and hit Adam’s car.  Sims’ son died instantly.

“I simply tried to make sense out of that chaotic tragedy by becoming a disaster chaplain with the National Transportation Safety Board and ultimately ended up at ground zero,” Sims said. “I would not have gone to ground zero or even signed up for disaster chaplaincy training and program had Adam not been killed. There would’ve been no reason for it. I would’ve had everything. I would’ve been in my comfort zone − everything would’ve been fine.”

When flights resumed seven days after the terrorist attacks, Sims flew to Liberty State Park, a park on the shores of the Hudson River in New Jersey overlooking the New York Harbor and Ellis Island. A family assistance center had been set up at the park.

Sims’ job was to assist family members of victims to ground zero to see where their family members had died and to counsel family members, first responders and other personnel. Sims remembers clearly what he witnessed that day he arrived at ground zero.

“I think the image that sticks out most of my experience at ground zero was the smell,” he said. “There is a sickeningly sweet odor of death, and it was all over that ground zero site. When I was at ground zero right after it happened, it was still smoking, (there were) still dust clouds all over the sky and the horrible smell of death.”

Sims remembers the New York City sanitation department drove trucks that sprayed bleach and water over the mounds of rubble in an attempt to keep the smell down.

“That’s why there are some smells − bleach especially; I can smell that and remember very vividly,” Sims said.

The grieving families also made a lasting impression on Sims.

One family from Brooklyn whose loved one was a firefighter and one of the first responders when the first tower came down was at the ground zero site. Sims remembers standing behind the family members as they stood on the viewing platform when the firefighter’s daughter came up to him.

“His daughter Becky, 14, started hammering on my chest and screaming ‘Why’ and there are no answers at that point,” Sims said. “I have learned in my short life how to deal with powerlessness, and at that moment I really experienced powerlessness. There was nothing I could say to her. Any words would have diminished the moment.”

Sims’ wife Sharon said her husband shared stories with her of what he saw at ground zero and the grieving families he counseled.

“He did talk about how heartbreaking it was, and it brought back for us, of course, our own grief at the death of our son,” she said. “So we could empathize and truly feel some of what the people there were going through as individuals at the tragic death of a loved one, but this was magnified by the sheer number involved and also the deliberateness of it. As horrible as it is to lose someone you love in an accident, it has to be worse to know that your loved one died as a result of an act of terror.”

To provide comfort to grieving family members and all those who needed it, the state of New York, the city of New York and the state of New Jersey provided teddy bears to give people something to hold onto. Before and after seeing the ground zero site, most people would hold onto one. After the first day, Sims took one for himself.

That teddy bear sits on the desk in his office today.

After being in New York just short of two weeks, Sims was sent home for personal health reasons. He had difficulty sleeping and returning to a normal pattern of life. He found there were few people he could talk to. He saw a psychotherapist for several months. 

“He couldn’t talk about it,” said Todd Hitt, engineer for the Champaign Fire Department. “It was very emotional for him, and it still is emotional just from the things that he’s seen and had to do out there, but he was there for a reason, and people need to hear about it. He’s very passionate about trying to help people get through trying times.”

Sims’ wife sees the changes in personality the experience brought about for him.

“There definitely is, I think, a change not only in him but in anybody who went through that type of experience that stays with you forever,” she said. “You become maybe a slightly more serious person but also at the same time, maybe a little more fun loving in the sense that you look for the joy in life even more. I think he does that. He looks for the joy because he knows how quickly life can change.”

Sims now believes every human being goes through a “ground zero” experience, an event that changes an individual’s approach to life and affects him or her greatly. Some are profound while others are relatively insignificant, but for that person going through it, it is deeply moving.

“What is profoundly important to you ought to be heard and respected by everybody else and vice versa,” Sims said.

Christian Education Director Debbie Ross, of the First United Methodist Church in Urbana, sees his approach to helping others in her interactions with Sims.

“If there are stressful things going on, we can help each other through it,” she said. “We’ve both had some losses in our families recently. His father has died, and my father died since I’ve worked here. My father in law died since I’ve worked here. We’ve helped each other through it. It’s been very helpful.”

Before he began serving as disaster chaplain for the Champaign Fire Department, Hitt had a close relationship with Sims, whom he knew from being a member of the Methodist church in St. Joseph, Ill., of which Sims was a pastor at the time.

“He’s been there for all of our family needs, for everybody who’s had medical issues and been in the hospital,” Hitt said. “He was always there and continues to be. He’s one of those guys where (when) you call him, he will return your call and he will be there.”

Despite the hardships Sims has gone through, those close to him describe him as fun-loving and humorous.

“He’s very forward and direct when he interacts with the firemen,” Hitt said. “Of course, firefighters are just usually boys and girls who haven’t grown up. So he loves telling jokes and setting the mood, but then when it comes time to having to administer faith, he is very serious about it and very frank and very honest, and it fits in well with the guys at the fire department.”

Even after going through such a profound experience at the site of ground zero, Sims remains humble about his accomplishments.

“Anybody with similar training and a similar mindset to what I have would have done the exact same thing,” he said. “I am not comfortable being called a hero or someone who understands something more profound about the 9/11 tragedy. I’m not. I was just a person who responded to this because this is what I felt God wanted me to do.”







































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