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October 3, 2001


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2001-284

Everyone has a ministry at Ground Zero

by Don Thompson

The music welled up as I entered St. Paul's Chapel September 27. "Shall We Gather by the River, Where bright angel feet have trod?" was being played on the piano, heavy on the pedals, so that the bass chords rolled out solid affirmation to the gospel hope.

That is how the chapel felt.

People milling in and out, New York Police Department, the National Guard, the FBI, hoards of volunteers, machine operators, and then the tired and overworked New York Fire Department, who continue to bear the toughest work of the rescue operation.

They came to St. Paul's for food, for prayer, for quiet, and for supplies.

The church was stocked like a supermarket, with supplies coming in as constantly as they went out.

Here everyone is a volunteer. As soon as the supplies came in, the firemen and police put down their food and quickly formed a supply line, tossing cartons of food, water, into their place on the porch of St. Paul's. Everyone pitches in here, without ever being asked.

Hot food, prepared in New York restaurants, is there 24 hours a day. MacDonald's has a trailer store nearby, but the word is out on the street;- the best food is at St. Paul's!

There is a foot clinic, a chiropractic clinic, and even free construction boots - top quality.

The firemen are the most exhausted; most of them had been there since the first day or so. The NYPD are often the ones at prayer; several I talked to had lost one or two close friends, especially if they usually worked this or a neighboring precinct.

There were firefighters and rescue units from New Jersey and Massachusetts, as well as the rest of New York State.

Some were clearly entering the church for the first time, looking at it curiously. They asked what kind of church it was, and what kind of services were held here?

There was amazement that the church had survived without so much as a window broken, but one block from ground zero. They all knew about the adjoining cemetery; it was untouched since the buildings collapsed, and also the ash covering everything included incinerated human remains.

Ground zero identifies itself first of all by its smell; an acrid smoke hangs over the whole area. Then there is the sound of generators on every corner, and banks of lights that blaze night or day.

The shell of one of the smaller buildings of the Trade Center is a blackened, burnt-out cage of metal. Beside it is simply a pile of rubble and girders, but about two stories high.

Huge cranes tower overhead.

At times the firefighters clamber over the ruins, and at times they are called off as the cranes move girders and concrete. It is painstaking work.

In the midst of all that carnage is this old chapel of St. Paul's, where George Washington once worshipped.

It is quieter than the street. It has only a few low lights, powered by generators, but the altar is ablaze with candles. There is another bank of candles alongside the altar rail. People come, light a candle, and kneel down to pray a while.

Then they go to the podiatrist for some supporting insoles, or even for new boots. And then get their supplies, from batteries and flashlights, to snacks, to personal hygiene, to chocolate and candy.

Outside on the porch the meals are served, but we encouraged folks to go back into the church to eat, where it is warmer, quieter, and more inviting. There were blankets on most pews, so some were sleeping, others were eating, some just sitting, and some praying.

A group of us would huddle in one corner and talk about the shift.

Most police and firemen were on fourteen hour shifts, such as 4 am to 6pm.

But most volunteers matched those shifts, 8am to 8pm, to 8am again. They came from other parts of the city, from Connecticut to New Jersey.

Amongst all the lay volunteers, there are also clergy. I was with a priest who had come up from a parish in Florida, just to help. We had two "volunteer bishops" while we were there. They would lead prayer and sometimes the laying on of hands. There were two perpetual Deacons, heading up different teams of volunteers.

And then there were young and old overseeing all the supply tables, handing out coffee, and serving the food.

The only people who weren't there were the onlookers. They were kept behind a police barricade, on the other side of the street. Except they needed to see something of what had happened to their city, just as much as the workers needed to have some relief from seeing it.

Everyone has a ministry in this place, and there was a sense of hope and help in everything.

But most of all I was struck by a nun, a Sister of the Holy Spirit, who sat down and played the piano quietly in the background. She played Bach, Beethoven, and Pacelbel. She extemporized with Amazing Grace, and Eternal Father Strong to Save.

But every 45 minutes or so, she kept returning to "Shall we gather at the river," and I heard people humming the tune.

Why, I wondered?

I looked up the words when I got home later that night, and I knew why music and words mixed so appropriately to that place that night:

Ere we reach the shining river
Lay we every burden down
Grace our spirits will deliver
And provide a robe and crown

Soon we'll reach the shining river
Soon our pilgrimage will cease
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace

Yes, we will gather at the river
The beautiful, the beautiful river
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God

--The Rev. Don Thompson is general secretary of the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion. 

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