The Story Behind My Story – Dawn Robinson and Jim Cymbala – God’s Grace From Ground Zero
**Editor’s note: This post first appeared at Dawn Robinson’s blog, and is being published here with permission.
My name is Dawn Robinson. My testimony was featured in Pastor Jim Cymbala’s book God’s Grace from Ground Zero which was released on December 1, 2001. I would like to tell you my story.
From the Frying Pan – Into the Fire
In 1998 I moved from Orlando Florida to New York City after resigning from my position as a Personal Assistant to well-known Senior Pastor who referred to himself as the “Bishop”. The reason for my resignation was due to the fact that the pastor asked me to administer unethical accounting practices; something that I was not willing to do.
In response to my resignation, the pastor confiscated all of my personal belongings and sold them. He also threatened to take my car and said that he would ruin my life. But that’s another story for another day.
When I arrived in New York, the only thing I possessed was my car and two suitcases full of clothes. I came to stay with my new roommate Roberta Langella who graciously opened up her home to me. I met Roberta a few years earlier when the singing group that I belonged to came to minister at a Brooklyn Tabernacle Women’s Ministry event. We hit it off immediately and became very good friends.
I started attending the Brooklyn Tabernacle and became a member of the choir in 1999. At first, things were going well, but eventually, it seems as though I moved from the frying pan into the fire. I soon realized that I came from one abusive mega-church pastor to another. Without giving all the details, I want to share just a snippet of my story in hopes that others may recognize the signs of spiritual abuse and remove themselves before they become another casualty to the wolves in sheep’s clothing.
I was a faithful church member who attended all three services each Sunday, the Tuesday Night Prayer Meeting, and Friday night choir practice. I had also been blessed with a great job as a Vice President with Morgan Stanley located on the 61st Floor of the South Tower at the World Trade Center
Everything was going well until that fateful day now known as 911. Without going into all the details, let’s just say that God had indeed spared my life on that day. I survived with minor cuts and bruises, blunt force damage to the right side of my brain, breathing problems, and loss of vision for several weeks. I barely made it out of the building alive.
When Pastor Cymbala and Carol heard about my experience they invited me into their home for a few days. I couldn’t see anything other than very blurry colors as my vision was impaired by my injuries. The terror attack happened on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, and Pastor Cymbala asked me to give my testimony to the church on the very next Sunday, September 16, 2001. I was still in extreme shock and could barely see a thing, but nevertheless, I got up in front of the church and spoke to the congregation. To this day I do not remember one word that I said. The only thing I remember was being in extreme physical pain, especially in my eyes.
Pastor Cymbala wanted me to tell my story in his new book that came out on December 1, 2001, just 81 days after that infamous day. And he began to send me around to other churches and interviews with several Christian broadcasting networks.
When Pastor Cymbala and Carol invited me to their home for Thanksgiving I was very excited. But just a few days before Thanksgiving I was informed by Carol Cymbala that the dinner was canceled and we would have to get together at another time. I then heard from someone close to the family the real reason behind the cancellation. Pastor Cymbala’s sons-in-law were involved in a physical altercation. Al Toledo (married to Chrissie Cymbala), and at that time the Executive Pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle, and Brian Pettrey, (married to Susan Cymbala) got into a fist-fight in the church office, and Al Toledo, the instigator, was fired. I then received a call from Al and Chrissie Toledo asking me not tell anyone about the fight and please don’t tell Pastor Cymbala or Carol that I knew about it. I found it upsetting but complied to their wishes.
At first, Pastor Cymbala and Carol were very kind to me. But that kindness soon ended when I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, severe clinical depression, and agoraphobia. Not to mention constant anxiety and panic attacks that hit me like nothing I had ever experienced before in my entire life. I eventually locked myself up in my apartment and was unable to leave. The smell of smoke and burning metal was still rising from ground zero and the armed forces were located on every street corner. The sights, the smells, and the sounds were just too much for me to handle at that time. All the while, I was still going around to other churches giving my testimony. In spite of the fact that Pastor Cymbal kept assuring me that if I just had enough faith I would get over the pain of 911: yet the truth is, I was still in shock and was hurting beyond what I thought was humanly possible. Pastor Cymbala tried to counsel me on several occasions but he soon gave up. He was frustrated that I was unable to be that super-Christian woman that he had portrayed in his book God’s Grace from Ground Zero, and the many interviews I had done for him on Christian broadcasting and radio shows.
Because of my severe depression, I began to see a Psychiatrist in 2002 who prescribed anti-depressants to help me cope with the PTSD. When Pastor Cymbala heard that I was seeing a Psychiatrist he berated me and told me that I was ruining my Christian witness and told me to stop taking the medication and stop seeing the Psychiatrist. He told me that I should have been over 911 by this time and I needed to stop being so emotional about it. I was so hurt by his words which added to my suffering. My father passed away in October of that same year and that made matters even worse.
I lost my job at the World Trade Center and was no longer able to work. I had to go on disability and the Red Cross gave me a $50 voucher for groceries. I struggled to pay rent and only had $4.00 in my bank account. Pastor Cymbala made hundreds of thousands of dollars from the book God’s Grace from Ground Zero which included my testimony, which also was not truthful by the way. He made it sound as though I were some kind of super-Christian woman and a mighty “overcomer” in his ministry. I was in need of an under-shepherd and instead got a talent manager. Everywhere I went to give my testimony, I was given stacks of God’s Grace from Ground Zero to sell after I spoke. Yet I never received a dime.
On several occasions, Pastor Cymbala asked me to sing at the many funerals of those lost on 911. How could he be so insensitive? I could barely get out of my apartment, much less sing at funerals for 9/11 victims. I cried and told him I was sorry, but I just couldn’t do it. Again, he berated me and shamed me for not doing my part, since God had so graciously spared my life, how could I not be willing to sing at the funeral of those who did not make it. That only added to the shame of survivor’s guilt that I was already dealing with, which was at times, almost too much to bear.
Several years later in 2003, I had personally watched Roberta Langella suffer so horribly by the way Pastor Cymbala had treated her as well. I was embarrassed for him as Roberta would ask me each time I went to visit her in the nursing home if Pastor Cymbala was going to call or come visit her. The truth was he never asked about her. I had witnessed first-hand how she was used and then discarded and yet I still fell into the same trap.
I tried my best to remain faithful to my commitment to the choir but I was eventually dismissed in 2004 and treated as an outcast because I couldn’t get over the pain and trauma in a time frame that was acceptable to Pastor Cymbala.
I tried to call Pastor Cymbala on several occasions in 2004 to ask him for his advice on whether or not I should move out of state. I was told by Pastor Charles Combs that Pastor Cymbala was no longer available to speak with me and that I should go ahead and move if that is what I wanted to do. Neither Carol or Pastor Cymbala spoke to me before I left.
I visited the Brooklyn Tabernacle on several occasions after I moved away in 2004. One time I approached Pastor Cymbala and he would not even acknowledge my presence. As I reached out to shake his hand he simply ignored me. Carol, on the other hand, gave me a hug and turned and asked her husband to pray for me. He shook his head no and then turned away from me. Carol seemed embarrassed by the incident and then asked me to pray over the choir before the next service. In spite of the harsh treatment that I received at the hands of Pastor Cymbala,
I tried taking my own life several times after I left the Brooklyn Tabernacle. The latest incident was on March 26, 2013. After the attempted suicide I was admitted into North Tampa Behavioral Health Hospital. I eventually transferred into a residential treatment center for severe PTSD for sixteen months called The Refuge in Ocala Florida. They literally saved my life.
I am grateful to God for the work of healing and restoration that He is doing in my life today. Not just from the horrific effects from 9/11, as horrible as those memories are, but from the wounds inflicted on me by a man who I thought would be used by God to help walk me through the pain, but in reality was actually a source of great pain for me.
I am grateful for the many friendships that I developed over the years during my time at the Brooklyn Tabernacle. And I still pray for the Cymbalas regularly. And although it is not my desire to hurt them, I believe that without sincere repentance on Pastor Cymbala’s part, and a willingness to discontinue such practices, other Christians will also become prey and end up severely wounded, if not destroyed, by those who seem to be building their own kingdom instead of God’s Kingdom.
It must grieve the heart of our Father when He sees such injustice done to his sheep all in the name of Jesus. May God have mercy.
I would like to leave you with a quote from Pastor Jim Cymbala on page 39 of his book God’s Grace from Ground Zero:
“I pray that I will remain sensitive to the people who have been directly or indirectly impacted by the events of that tragic day”
Read my story as found in God’s Grace From Ground Zero – Jim Cymbala
God’s Grace from Ground Zero – Jim Cymbala
AN INSIDE LOOK
And that brings us back to Dawn Robinson, the woman whose passion for the harvest dramatically affected her friendship with a co-worker.
Dawn Robinson began her day on Tuesday, September 11, in the usual way, by taking the express bus from her apartment in Brooklyn to 2 World Trade Center—the South Tower. She then rode the elevator up to the forty- fourth-floor plaza and transferred to another bank of elevators that took her to her office on the sixty-first floor. It was a beautiful, crystal-clear day when she looked out her window at 7:30 A.M. and began working.
After more than an hour, Dawn looked out the window on her right side, which overlooked the East River. “I heard a strange whistling sound that sounded like it was coming directly at me,” she says. “I looked up and thought I saw something huge for just a split second. Then I felt a slight jolt. I jumped to my feet and saw that chunks of debris seemed to be falling from the North Tower.
“Some of my co-workers and I stared out the windows trying to figure out what was going on. Suddenly two huge fireballs shot past my window, and everyone began to run toward the nearest elevators. Eight people rode down with me to the forty-fourth-floor plaza, which was as low as we could go on that elevator.” Oddly, when Dawn reached the forty-fourth floor, there was a party-like atmosphere. Morgan Stanley employees always went to that floor during the many fire drills conducted in the building since the infamous 1993 World Trade Center bombing incident.’
“Workers from other floors were conversing and laugh- ing with one another. It seemed like a routine fire drill that had turned into a huge coffee break. We felt no sense of alarm or danger. Whatever we had seen and felt on the sixty- first floor, everything now seemed to be under control.”
Dawn joined in the chatter with others. Some people conjectured that the North Tower must have experienced some type of problem, and within minutes an announcement came over the loudspeakers that everything was, in fact, under control.
“We were instructed either to continue to the forty- fourth-floor cafeteria or to return to our workstations. I saw no one leave at this point. There was no need for alarm, because those in authority had confirmed that everything was secure. So I worked my way through the milling crowd of people toward the bank of elevators that would take me back to my office.
“As the elevator doors opened, I stopped suddenly, feel- ing an urgent sense of alarm and even claustrophobia. How could this be, I wondered, since the all-clear signal has been given? Besides, my wallet, identification card, credit cards, and the keys to my apartment and car are in my office. How can I not go back up to retrieve them?”
But something was telling Dawn to quickly leave the South Tower, so she turned away from the elevator, made her way through the relaxed crowd, and convinced a few friends to come with her. About 9:00 A.M., they entered the stairwell on the forty-fourth floor to exit 2 World Trade Center.
“Other people were walking slowly down the stairs with us, but no one was panicking. Just as we reached the forty- second floor, a tremendous impact threw us against the wall. Screams of terror filled the air.”
United Airlines Flight 175 had just crashed into the South Tower some twenty floors above where Dawn would have been sitting in her office.
“Pandemonium broke out in the stairwell as people pushed to get past one another. I’m only four feet nine inches tall, and the crush of bodies almost toppled me as I grabbed the banister and held on for dear life.” Soon the screams were replaced by an eerie silence in the stairwell as the frightened people walked down.
“As I walked, I prayed out loud, ‘God, please protect us! Dear Jesus, keep us safe!’”
Her lone, prayerful voice resonated in the quiet, congested stairwell. As she descended, more people joined them. Water and smoke did, too, making the descent more treacherous. It took more than forty-five minutes for Dawn and her friends to reach the smoke-filled concourse level, which had no lights.
“I saw a group of policemen and firemen, but I was mainly thinking about the fastest way to get out of the building. I tried two doors, but couldn’t get out because they were blocked by fallen debris. People around me were frantically running in all directions trying to find some way—anyway—out of the South Tower. I felt trapped, too, and wondered if I would survive.”
Policemen began yelling for people to walk up two non- functioning escalators to the second level. Crowds of work- ers fought to run up the steps, but progress was difficult and slow. When Dawn and her friends reached the top, they were directed to doors that led outside and were cautioned to stay close to the outer walls of the South Tower to avoid being hit by debris.
“Once we got outside, we did as the policemen told us to do, but we also realized that sooner or later we would have to make a run for it. I darted out away from the build- ing just as some light debris struck me. Then I saw a river of blood on one side of me. On the other, a man with out- stretched hands staggered toward me. His face was severely burned. His eyes were sealed shut, and flesh hung loosely from his body. Horrified, knowing I couldn’t do anything to help him and certain that medical people would be com- ing, I kept running as he headed back toward the South Tower.”
The formerly blue sky was now gray and turning darker by the second. As Dawn ran down a panic-filled street, explosions went off behind her. “I thought about jumping into the nearby river, but it was pitch black from falling debris. Suddenly I heard the loudest explosion of all.” Within seconds the entire South Tower, unable to hold the 110,000-ton weight of its damaged top section, pancaked floor by floor to the ground.
“As I ran, the huge, dark cloud of debris began chasing me. Hearing jet airplanes, I kept wondering if they were enemy forces bombing us. I didn’t know where to hide.
“Suddenly the sky seemed as dark as midnight. The choking cloud overtook me. Everyone around me looked like they’d been draped in white blankets. Dust and soot completely covered us. We were gagging, trying to breathe. Once again I thought I would die. I looked around and could only find one of my co-workers, Cassie. She had grabbed a fireman’s arm and had literally been dragged away from the area.
“Cassie and I started running together, as fast as we could, and finally jumped into an abandoned city bus. The huge cloud of dust still filled the air, but the bus windows had kept most of it out.”
Huddled with her friend on that bus in downtown Manhattan, Dawn pleaded, “We can’t be sure we will survive this. Please, Cassie, don’t wait one minute more ask Jesus Christ into your life right now! So, in the midst of the terror and uncertainty, and layered with dust, Cassie prayed out loud and received Christ as her Savior—on a bus.
A few minutes later, Dawn and Cassie made their way toward the Brooklyn Bridge. Dawn was not sure they should cross it, because she thought it might be bombed, too. But they decided to join the mass of people streaming over it into Brooklyn. After being cleaned off at a first-aid station, the two women walked up Flatbush Avenue to the Brooklyn Tabernacle, where our staff workers were literally giving out cups of cold water in Jesus’ name.
One of my staff members later told me that, when he handed Dawn some water, she was shaking so badly she could hardly hold the glass. And when he asked her what had happened, Dawn had to wrap her left arm around a light pole to be able to stand up long enough to respond. But she was alive.
Alive—and in the midst of this disaster God used her to share his love with a friend.
Perhaps as you read Dawn’s story, your tears flowed. Mine did, and so did the tears of others who helped me with this chapter. But how will we, as Christians, respond any differently from now on? Weeks and months will pass, dim- ming memories of September 11, 200l. But for Dawn and Cassie and so many others, the memories of what happened that day—and the ways in which their hearts were touched—will never grow dim.