U-C: What I See

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Faith Walk at Ground Zero


Yesterday, I went to church. As moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly, I go to a church almost every day, but this wasn’t just any church.

This was St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City http://www.saintpaulschapel.org, the oldest public building that has been continuously in use on the island of Manhattan. This was George Washington’s first stop after his inauguration on April 30, 1789. St. Paul’s also has the distinction of being immediately across the street from Ground Zero where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once soared well over one hundred stories in the air.

St. Paul’s became a place of hospitality and care for the recovery workers who worked to clear away the rubble and debris that reached twenty stories up and sank seven more into the ground. I’ve been in a lot of historic churches over time, and in general they tend to resemble museums far more than houses of worship. Not this one.

Here, the pews are battered with the marks of the heavy tool belts worn by the hundreds of workers in the recovery effort who came in to sit for a while and try to recharge after long hours of working to clear bodies, mementos, and the wreckage of the towers. Today, there is still a trundle bed, low to the floor and neatly made up with stuffed animals on the pillow, a reminder of the beds which ringed the sanctuary for many months to provide a place of refuge for the exhausted folks whose bodies and souls were equally battered by the grim work.

There are home-made banners of support from all over the country and around the world that hang on the walls and on the front of the balconies that line the room on three sides, and there are what can only be described as shrines of remembrance for both the victims of the disaster and for the sacrifice of so many of those who responded. Members of this church and hundreds of volunteers of all faiths fed thousands of recovery workers here each day. They offered counseling and care for the men and women who came in off “the pile” that eventually was known as “the pit.” George Washington’s historic pew, a ten by ten, enclosed box on one side of the room, became the podiatry clinic where the workers received care for their cut or burned feet. One volunteer told us that no one entered the room untouched by their experience in the pit, but they left with spirits renewed in this place of worship.

One of the displays next to Washington’s pew is a rack that contains a display called “healing hands.” There are small, brightly painted, paper hands – most sent by children as an expression of care and support for the recovery workers. One in the middle jumped out at me: “War is what we need to eradicate, so please spread love – not hate.” On the other side there are hundreds of paper cranes sent by sisters and brothers in Japan. A sign explains that the most treasured have been stored for safe keeping. Those are the ones sent by the victims who survived the nuclear bombs dropped on their cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sixty years ago.

Later in the afternoon, the members of the General Assembly Council Executive Committee visited the offices of Lutheran Disaster Response of New York and Koinonia NYC, who jointly sponsor the “Faith Walk” experience. (Check out http://www.ldrny.org/ for more info.) We watched a video that focused on this marvelous expression of what God calls each of our churches to be. Toward the end of the video, several of the volunteers from the church and the recovery workers shared similar thoughts about their experience. “I don’t want this experience, which is all about peace and love and unity, to be forgotten when the immediacy of the disaster has passed us by,” one woman said. One worker reflected that this disaster stripped away all of the divisions that normally define us: black, white, gay, straight, whatever cultural or religious boundaries we might normally cling too; they all disappeared in the immediacy of the crisis. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” said another man, “if all churches acted like this without the impetus of a disaster like the one we experienced.”

There is a wrought-iron fence that surrounds the historic graveyard between the church and the site of Ground Zero. On the morning of the disaster, firefighters parked on the street by the church and rushed to change from civilian clothes into their protective equipment. Many hung their street boots upside-down on the spikes of the fence to be collected when they returned at the end of the day. By the next day, volunteers realized that the owners of many of the boots would never come back to collect them, and the fence that circles almost a city block became a memorial to those who lost their lives - more than three hundred of them - in their attempt to save those who were in and around the towers at the time of the attack.

Boots upside down on the fence. This is the image that stays with me. A witness to the fact that there is a cost to caring for and about others. I hunger for a church and a country in which we embody that kind of sacrifice. One person in the video reflected on the honor of being connected to St. Paul’s, because there were people all over the world who wanted to respond. St. Paul’s, less than a hundred yards from the unbelievable destruction of the attacks, was given the opportunity to be God’s witness and the healing presence of Jesus Christ to a people numbed by violence and destruction and the loss of loved-ones. We should all be so fortunate to have that opportunity.

Yesterday I realized in a powerful way that we have a choice in our country. We can choose to define who we are as a people by remembering the attack and all of the twisted hate and malice that it represents and make it the hallmark of how we will interact with the rest of the world. Or, we can remember St. Paul’s and the hundreds of volunteers and the indomitable spirit of a people defined by a fundamental, unshakable belief that God is good and that we can choose to celebrate that goodness in one another. It took only a few minutes for the towers to come down, but for eight months after that event there were thousands of people who insisted, as our guide Lisa must have insisted at least a dozen times yesterday, that God is good and God was present through it all.

God is good – All the time!