In April of 2001, the Reverend Lyndon F. Harris was excited to accept the challenge of creating, in Manhattan's oldest church, a "laboratory for urban evangelism and alternative worship." So he put together a jazz ensemble and the technology for using new media visuals in worship. He even commissioned a setting of the mass in hip-hop. Then, three days after September 11, St. Paul's (Episcopal) chapel, which had stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center, became the relief center for the workers at Ground Zero. In December, he filed this report.
The noon church bell rings, curtailing but not stopping a multitude of sounds: the crinkling of cellophane sandwich wrappers, the popping of soda can tops, conversations both quiet and not so quiet, the rise and fall of snores, static and voices blaring from walkie-talkies, and the groans and sighs of those receiving a healing touch from massage therapists and podiatrists.
"Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." And so the noon liturgy for relief workers begins. As I look out from the pulpit I see banners and letters covering almost every available inch of space. There are blankets and teddy bears in every pew.
The chapel is half full, but only some partake of heavenly bread, while others relish fine sandwiches sent from Zabar's. I am once again reminded that we had no idea how "alternative" our ministry would become.
As a church, it is our honor to serve our new congregation: the men and women of the police and fire departments, as well as the armed forces and others. These people have worked tirelessly in the face of great adversity first to rescue survivors and now to recover the remains of the dead. As someone remarked, they wear respirators instead of neckties, and Kevlar vests instead of suits.
Given the fact that there was very little damage to the church, much has been said about the "miracle of St. Paul's." But Saint Paul's didn't survive because we are holier than anyone who died across the street; the fact that we are still standing is, to me at least, an indication that we now have a big job to do and a huge mission to fulfill.
The real miracle of St. Paul's is the extraordinary way in which people of good will from around the country--indeed the world--have come together in this common mission. One of the most important ministries is being a clearinghouse for the ministries of others. People from around the globe have volunteered or sent care packages filled with sweatshirts, cards, and letters. A favorite of mine is from a little girl named Skye in Tennessee who wrote:
What kind of dogs are you? What are your names? I have a dog. His name is Lucky.
At the top of the letter is Lucky's paw print, which is smudged. Obviously, there must have been a struggle! I want to write back and tell Skye that her dog has the right name; he is lucky indeed to have such a caring and compassionate friend.
We have received many extraordinary gifts. Just last week a group of sanitation workers took up a collection among themselves and presented us with a check for $2,000. Back in September an elderly woman in the Bronx heard that someone at Ground Zero injured a leg. So she boarded a subway, came down to lower Manhattan, talked her way past the police lines (no small feat!) and walked into the chapel. She then gave us her own cane and hobbled away. This cane has become something of a relic-a symbol of the sacrificial love of which Jesus spoke.
People witnessing the ceaseless commotion of relief workers and volunteers at Saint Paul's often ask, "So when will it be a church again?"
But I just shrug. I don't think that St. Paul's has ever been a better church.
For several photo essays of the work at St. Pauls, visit this: photo gallery