2016-07-27
New York--In the sanctuary of St. Paul's Episcopal Chapel, candles for the dead provide light and jazz piano offers a small respite from the grinding 12-hour shifts of rescue workers. A weary Army reservist lies on a table as a massage therapist works over his knotted muscles. A police officer walks gingerly over to the pew where George Washington once worshipped for some advice from a podiatrist. Another cop peruses the first-aid table for aspirin.

In his makeshift office at the rear of the building--a pane of glass away from Ground Zero--the Rev. Lyndon Harris marvels at the transformation of Manhattan's oldest church into a 24-hour oasis for rescue 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 urban ministry at St. Paul's when terrorist attacks brought the nearby Twin Towers crashing down. "Someone said to me, `When is it going to be a church again?' I said, `I don't think it's ever been closer to being a church.'"

On Sept. 12, Harris walked warily up Broadway from his office at Trinity Church--St. Paul's mother church--to the historic building more popular with tourists than worshippers in recent decades. The church was literally in the shadow of the World Trade Center. Office workers often sat in the church's Colonial-era cemetery and ate lunch under its shady sycamores.

Those trees helped shield the church on Sept. 11, but volunteers manning the dinner lines and other comfort stations this week said it was 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 chaotic pit stop for thousands of rescue and relief workers. By Sept. 14, huge barbecue grills had been installed on the grounds to feed the workers. City health officials put a stop to that. But soon some of the finest restaurants in New York were donating thousands of meals daily.

Gradually, things became more organized. These days, groups of volunteers sign up a dozen at a time for 12-hour shifts, and the church is already staffed through the end of November. Since rescue workers sometimes catch some sleep in the pews, the church has instituted wake-up calls via a friendly tap on the shoulder. And a 3 a.m. soup line has been added to the three meals a day.

With more than a million tons of twisted steel and concrete still spitting smoke and ash into the air behind the church, Harris knows there 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 most guys had family issues. Their wives all wanted them to quit and come home."

These days, he said, there are more out-of-state volunteers. The New York uniformed rescue workers are on strict 12-hour shifts and sleeping at home. And the massive demolition operation that often sends shudders through 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 the day with his wife, Kathleen, said the workers he helped with sore bunions 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's pew wasn't lost on her. She found her thoughts drifting to the frost-bitten patriots trudging between battlefields in another time of national crisis.

After the war, Washington took the inaugural oath nearby on Wall Street, 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 the noon service he tries out on rescue workers might include a little hip-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 the history of this church, but we can't be confined to that history. We want to be the church for the 21st century."

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