Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering September 11, and giving thanks for St. Paul's Chapel in New York

Today we remember the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington DC, and Flight 93 over Pennsylvania. For many it is as raw as it was that day.

Since then, nothing has been built at "Ground Zero" in New York to replace the twin towers, and the site is has taken on the trappings of early church shrines to martyrs. It is sad but not surprising that the proposal to build an Islamic Center two blocks from the site has taken on major religious and political baggage for so many.

What many don't know is that there already is a house of prayer -- a church -- at Ground Zero, St. Paul's Episcopal Chapel. It is called a "chapel" because it is satellite of Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, probably the wealthiest church in the country because it owns much of lower Manhattan.

St. Paul's Chapel, opened in 1766, is the oldest building in continuous use in New York. A prominent landmark, the chapel was dwarfed in the 1970s by the World Trade Center just across from the graveyard.

When the towers crashed, and other buildings collapsed, the graveyard was covered with debris and the pulverized remains of those who died in the towers -- but somehow St. Paul's Chapel remained standing. To read more about St. Paul's Chapel, click HERE.

In the days following 9/11, St. Paul's
Chapel became a staging center and resting place for rescue workers and those digging out the dead. The work went on for months.

Lori and I spent a day at St. Paul's in April 2002, a few months after the calamity. The work of digging out was still in full swing.

Outside and inside, people built shrines to the dead. The nave was stacked with palettes of bottled water, rescue workers napped in the pews, food was served in a corner. The daily Holy Eucharist went on at the altar amidst everything else.

I wrote this in my notebook on April 26, 2002, the day we were at St. Paul's Chapel:
"St. Paul's was overwhelming, with a shrine to the dead in one corner, and banners on every wall and cards hanging from every pew. Firemen and cops and construction workers were sitting or milling about or eating lunch or catching a nap on a cot. A priest was just beginning the noon Eucharist. The noise was layered and awesome...
The sounds of machinery outside came through the walls. And many inside seemed just very, very weary. Some slumped in pews, some praying, some looking at the ceiling. A group of firemen in full battle gear came in to get water and looked briefly at the prayers then departed...
The sights of hope were everywhere, bursting through and covering walls with banners and signs and cardboard colored paper signed and colored by children from all over the U.S. It was awesome and overwhelming and humbling."

St. Paul's was a holy place filled with holy people. It didn't matter if they were Christians, Jews, Muslims or nothing at all. Religious labels were irrelevant. St. Paul's was a place of prayer, a place of sanctuary and a place of rest for everyone who entered.

A number of my clergy friends took a turn spending a day or a week at the chapel.

Today, let us remember those who died nine years ago; let us remember those who worked tirelessly to relieve the pain of the victims. Let us give thanks for St. Paul's Chapel and all who came through those doors.

And may we have as much charity and equanimity in our hearts for people of all religions as we did then.

Photos from the St. Paul's Chapel website.

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