Monday, July 16, 2007

Suddenly...the Kingdom of God

I've visited St. Paul's Chapel at Ground Zero in New York City on four occasions now, not because I'm that drawn to it necessarily, but because I've been with various friends and family members touring NYC. When I hear and read the story of how this church, not only physically survived the disaster but in the moment it was called upon became the epicenter of relief and care for rescue workers, I'm startled byt he realization that at any time, a church professing to be Christian, could be "on point" to be the signpost for the Kingdom of God to the watching world. I'm challenged by the thought "Are we really ready if called upon?"

Read this account from National Geographic
After the towers fell, a tiny 18th-century Episcopal church became a relief center. Clergy counseled, cooks dished out meals, and medical workers treated stiff muscles and burned feet.

An associate for ministry at Saint Paul’s shares his thoughts on 9/11.

On September 12, after having escaped the maelstrom of 9/11, I returned to Lower Manhattan to survey the damage to St. Paul’s Chapel—just yards away from where building 5 of the World Trade Center stood—and to find ways to be helpful in the rescue effort. At that point we assumed there would be many survivors. As I walked down Broadway from my apartment in Greenwich Village, my heart was pounding, not knowing what I might find. I assumed the chapel had been demolished. When I saw the spire still standing, I was overwhelmed. It took my breath away. Opening the door to enter St. Paul’s was an extraordinary experience; except for a layer of ash and soot, the building survived unscathed. Many proclaimed that “St. Paul’s had been spared.” It seemed clear to me that if this was true, it was not because we were holier than anyone who died across the street; it was because we now had a big job to do.

Taking this challenge to heart, we set up a cold drink concession and hot food service four days later for the rescue workers, and men from our shelter, and many others, proudly flipped burgers at what came to be called the “Barbecue on Broadway.” The relief ministry at St. Paul’s was supported by the labor of three local institutions—the Seamen’s Church Institute, the General Theological Seminary, and St. Paul’s, in the parish of Trinity Church—and volunteers from all over the country. More than 5,000 people used their special gifts to transform St. Paul’s into a place of rest and refuge. Musicians, clergy, podiatrists, lawyers, soccer moms, and folks of every imaginable type poured coffee, swept floors, took out the trash, and served more than half a million meals. Emerging at St. Paul’s was a dynamic I think of as a reciprocity of gratitude.a circle of thanksgiving—in which volunteers and rescue and recovery workers tried to outdo each other with acts of kindness and love, leaving both giver and receiver changed. This circle of gratitude was infectious, and I hope it continues to spread. In fact, I hope it turns into an epidemic.

There are so many stories that illustrate such selfless giving. One of the earliest, which continues to inspire me, is the story of the elderly African-American woman, probably in her 80s, who heard that a man working at ground zero had hurt his leg. So she got on the subway in the South Bronx and came all the way down to Lower Manhattan. She talked her way through the police lines, which at that time was no small feat, and came to St. Paul’s. Once inside she presented us with her own cane and then hobbled off. In that moment the universe became a little more generous.

A poet once said “midwinter spring is its own season.” The period from the terrorists attacks to the end of the recovery efforts at ground zero was its own season, lasting 260 days. Although the calendar tells us that it lasted for three seasons—fall, winter, and spring—many of us have little recollection of any climate changes. We just got up, day after day, dressed accordingly, and went about the monumental task of trying to make sense out of absurdity, bring order out of chaos, and reclaim humanity from the violence that sought to make human life less human. This was also a season of remembrance as we mourned the loss of loved ones. It was a season of improvisation as we tried, often at our wit’s end, to respond to the needs emerging from these never before experienced acts of terrorism. It was a season of renewal as we sought to look toward a day when our commonalities will overcome our divisions, when compassion will overcome violence, and kindness will swallow up hatred. Ultimately, what began in hatred evolved into, in the words from that great song from the musical Rent, a “season of love.” It was a season in which people of love and goodwill, compassion and generosity, sought to practice the art of radical hospitality.

The relief ministry at St. Paul’s has now come to an end. The chapel that once housed massage therapists, tired workers, and thousands of love notes colored carefully by schoolchildren and others has been closed for cleaning and restoration. I’m not quite certain what awaits this marvelous church when it reopens, but I do know that it was a rare privilge to take part in the work of these past months, and I have been forever changed by it.

Now when I make my morning commute on the N or R subway to my office on Rector Street, I pass through Cortland Street Station, the station underneath the WTC site. Traveling through it, I see American flags, red tape, and signs that read, “Do not stop here.” My mind floods with memories, and all I can do is fold my newspaper and say a silent prayer for those who died there and for those who still suffer from the devastation. It’s a moment that is rather surreal as the past intersects with the harsh realities of the present and the hopes for a brighter, more humane future.

— The Reverend Lyndon Harris