In his makeshift office at the rear of the building--a pane ofglass away from Ground Zero--the Rev. Lyndon Harris marvels at thetransformation of Manhattan's oldest church into a 24-hour oasis forrescue workers. "You take a glance out there, and you get a glimpse of the kingdom,"said Harris, 40, who was barely five months into a fledgling urbanministry at St. Paul's when terrorist attacks brought the nearby TwinTowers crashing down. "Someone said to me, `When is it going to be a church again?' Isaid, `I don't think it's ever been closer to being a church.'"
On Sept. 12, Harris walked warily up Broadway from his office atTrinity Church--St. Paul's mother church--to the historic buildingmore popular with tourists than worshippers in recent decades. Thechurch was literally in the shadow of the World Trade Center. Officeworkers often sat in the church's Colonial-era cemetery and ate lunchunder its shady sycamores.
Those trees helped shield the church on Sept. 11, but volunteersmanning the dinner lines and other comfort stations this week said itwas nothing short of a miracle that the church survived. "I'll never forget turning the key in the lock that first day," Harris said. "It was so quiet in here, beautiful and eerie. There was ash everywhere, but it was standing proud."
Within days, however, the church had become a bustling and chaoticpit stop for thousands of rescue and relief workers. By Sept. 14, hugebarbecue grills had been installed on the grounds to feed the workers.City health officials put a stop to that. But soon some of the finestrestaurants in New York were donating thousands of meals daily.
Gradually, things became more organized. These days, groups ofvolunteers sign up a dozen at a time for 12-hour shifts, and the churchis already staffed through the end of November. Since rescue workerssometimes catch some sleep in the pews, the church has institutedwake-up calls via a friendly tap on the shoulder. And a 3 a.m. soup linehas been added to the three meals a day.
With more than a million tons of twisted steel and concrete stillspitting smoke and ash into the air behind the church, Harris knowsthere is still much for him and volunteers to do. He said a stroll through Ground Zero is a pastoral visit for him. "A few weeks ago, it wasn't uncommon to run into guys who had been on the scene since Day 1," he said. "They were sleep-deprived, and mostguys had family issues. Their wives all wanted them to quit and comehome."
These days, he said, there are more out-of-state volunteers. The NewYork uniformed rescue workers are on strict 12-hour shifts and sleepingat home. And the massive demolition operation that often sends shuddersthrough the church is going on in earnest. "I think the shock has worn off for most of these workers," he said."The trauma may be setting in."
Dr. William Sarchino, a podiatrist from Saratoga Springs, in for theday with his wife, Kathleen, said the workers he helped with sorebunions and sprained ankles mostly wanted to talk. "You feel like you want to do something, so you come down," he said. "Then they are there talking to you. I think it helps all of us." His wife said the significance of setting up shop in Washington'spew wasn't lost on her. She found her thoughts drifting to thefrost-bitten patriots trudging between battlefields in another time ofnational crisis.
After the war, Washington took the inaugural oath nearby on WallStreet, and he worshipped regularly at the church during his presidency. But with Sunday attendance hovering around 30 in recent years, the church had been in danger of becoming something of a historic relic.Harris was brought in to try something different. These days thenoon service he tries out on rescue workers might include a littlehip-hop or jazz. "One of my goals was to make this more about mission than museum,"he said. "It couldn't be called a museum now. We absolutely respect thehistory of this church, but we can't be confined to that history. Wewant to be the church for the 21st century."