LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) – Todd Gray was in his office at First Baptist Oak Grove preparing for a sermon when his wife, Connie, who was in the parsonage about 200 yards from the church, called him and said, “You’re going to want to see this.”
He listened to Connie, walked over to the parsonage and watched the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks unfold. A second plane had flown into the other World Trade Center tower in New York and later came an attack on the Pentagon in Washington. Another plane, which was bound for the Captiol in D.C., fell to the ground in a Pennsylvania field. The unimaginable attacks were going to change the world and this young pastor knew it.
In some ways, we’re still struggling to wake up from Sept. 11, 2001, when four planes plunged from the skies, two skyscrapers crumpled to the pavement and nearly 3,000 people lost their lives.
Gray was a 36-year-old pastor who had accepted the call to Oak Grove FBC only three months prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. Oak Grove is in a military town that is home to Fort Campbell, at the time the third-largest military institution in the country. Of all the places in Kentucky, national attention was coming there.
“Like everybody else, I was shocked that this was happening and thinking about the lives that were lost,” Gray said. The images from television of people falling or jumping out of the towers are seared in memories. Gray’s next thought was about the church: “What are we going to do? We’re a military town and there will be military implications.”
Gray, who is the executive director-treasurer of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, understood it was important to first act with prayer, so he called a prayer meeting at the church that Tuesday evening.
“We’d just hired a brand-new worship leader the Sunday before that happened,” he said. “He gave some leadership in song, and I read scripture. He talked about Horatio Spafford, who wrote ‘It is Well with My Soul’ and talked about the traumatic events in his life that prompted that song." People came to the church that night for comfort and tried to make sense of the nightmare that had happened. Gray pointed them toward Jesus through scripture.
“For me, the next that thing happened was my sermon wasn’t going to hold up for this Sunday,” Gray said. “I switched to an Ezekiel text and we felt a big move of the Lord the next Sunday. Several folks responded to the gospel and made professions of faith. Not all of them may have stuck but obviously, there was a lot of interest in church attendance.”
Everything was changing in the world and at Fort Campbell, where soldiers were anxious to deploy and fight for their country. For the next 10 years, Gray pastored that church near a military base at a time when the United States was at war in Afghanistan.
In the days and even weeks after the terrorist attacks, reporters from all over the country were coming to Oak Grove wanting interviews. He remembers eating at a greasy spoon in town and MSNBC reporter Ashleigh Banfield was across the room. “It was surreal,” he said.
Reporters were flocking to Fort Campbell, seeking answers and waiting for the next military move.
“Our church was a military church with 50% active duty and 25% retired,” Gray said. “Our soldiers were ready to go, anticipating the orders coming. I also remember when the orders came how it impacted much of the congregation. Some of the bravest Christians I’ve ever known were members of that church. We had all ranks of the military represented – lots of helicopter pilots, special forces, Green Berets, you name it. For the next 10 years, we were at war. We were ministering to families of deployed soldiers.”
Gray said almost immediately they began praying Psalm 91:11 over the deployed soldiers. It literally became a huge part of the church ministry. The verse reads: For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
“In 10 years of deployments we never had a single death to a military person involved in combat,” he said. “It felt like almost every Sunday we were sending somebody out. We’d recognize those who were about to deploy and pray over them. The Lord watched over those incredible soldiers, our soldiers.”
Gray stayed at First Baptist Oak Grove from June 2001 to July 2012. It was his longest pastorate.
“It was encouraging to be where the church wanted to be the church,” he said. “We had a military ministry leader who served military families. We became a church of retired soldiers and military wives. Our soldiers went through lots of deployments, many of them having four or five one-year deployments. It’s hard to understand the impact on families.”
The heroic soldiers never blinked. Prior to 9/11, Gray said, “They were all dressed up with no place to go. They were highly trained before 9/11 and highly disciplined. They were ready to go and weren’t apprehensive about going. When the orders finally came down, those guys were ready.”
Gray said the military wives were among the unsung heroes because they kept the home going when their soldier husbands were deployed. Oak Grove’s ministry to them made a difference, Gray said.
Even though 20 years have passed, Gray said many of the memories from that day remain vivid in his mind’s eye, much like it does for the rest of America. Everybody knows where they were when the attack happened. Gray understands his time at Oak Grove was a “clear calling of the Lord” for such a time as September 11, 2001.