By Catherine Kohn
In some of the darkest moments of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center ten years ago, Nathan Brockman saw Christian hope embodied at the parish of Trinity Wall Street.
“One of the more remarkable things I’ve seen is how immediately people’s faith came into play. Right after the first tower came down, the South Tower, you can imagine the proximity — it got very dark, it got very loud, you could feel the church shaking,” said Brockman, Trinity Wall Street’s director of communications and editor of Trinity News. “There was a congregation gathered there, seeking comfort, solace. Once the cascade stopped, Stewart Hoke, who was a priest here at the time, stood up before the congregation and he recited the Beatitudes. It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever encountered. That was the response of faith. It wasn’t the reaction to run, it wasn’t the reaction to react violently, or panic. It was very meaningful.”
Later, during the months of cleanup, people continued to help each other. “What I remember was the frozen zone. There was an area literally behind a chain-link fence for a number of months after the attack and if you weren’t certified personnel you weren’t to go beyond that perimeter,” Brockman said. “For a while the Trinity congregation worshiped at the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. It was a very generous act of theirs. Trinity’s offices during that time were relocated uptown.”
These initial responses to terrorism seem like a harbinger when looking back, he said. Trinity Wall Street and St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan have been a vital force for recovery since the attacks.
“If I look back on what Trinity and St. Paul’s and the Episcopal community in New York were able to do during that time, it was to provide that ministry of presence which I think said to people that God doesn’t promise that bad things won’t happen; what God does promise is companionship,” he said. “And I think through the ministry of St. Paul’s, which became so well known, it’s the story of that kind of companionship for people that we were able to help.”
The chapel’s ministry of refuge for rescue and recovery workers, which became a symbol of hope and peace, began in a simple fact: proximity.
“First and foremost it was nearby, and it was a church. So people had an automatic association with open doors and generosity,” Brockman said. “After the 9/11 attacks the doors to the chapel were locked, but a group of people from the broader Episcopal community in New York, from the General Theological Seminary and the Seamen’s Church Institute, came and very simply just started, from the sidewalk here, grilling food. And that’s what started it. Over time it became apparent they were serving a real need. Police officers, rescue workers and fire department workers were taking them up on their offer of food. It expanded up onto the porch, and eventually the doors were opened and what emerged was a place that cared for every aspect of the human condition — heart, mind, body, soul.”
The Rev. Mitties McDonald DeChamplain, Trinity Church professor of preaching at General Seminary, was on her first sabbatical on 9/11 and became one of the many clergy who worked directly at Ground Zero and at St. Paul’s. “People brought food from everywhere,” she said. “They just emptied their displays and shelves and then it became something of a routine.”
DeChamplain said she had to leave for a few days and by the time she returned St. Paul’s offered many other ministries of comfort — “Backrubs, massage, certain kinds of counseling, there was always someone available in the early days. It was quite stunning. And there was always music; people playing cello or violin.”
DeChamplain worked primarily at the temporary morgue set up within the Ground Zero perimeter, which she said was called “T-Mort” because no one wanted to use the word morgue. Her role was to “stand in for families who couldn’t be there” and be “on standby whenever I was needed.” She said she used the Book of Common Prayer in her ministry at Ground Zero because it is “reliable, elegant and very Catholic.”
“The fire department orchestrated everything. They know more about the ritual observance of grieving and recovering remains, and honoring those remains than anyone,” she said. “The common dedication to recovery is what held everything together: taking care of the workers, taking care of the families, taking care of the recovery of remains with reverence and deep respect. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.”
Brockman said there were about 9,000 volunteers over time. “It geared up into an operation that was run like clockwork in terms of organizing volunteers, bringing new shifts in; it was a 24-hour ministry that operated for almost nine months. It was a demanding, well-run operation.”
The usual intensity of lower Manhattan rose to agonizing and poignant levels.
“Everything felt more intense,” Brockman said. “People’s emotions were more intense, both positive and negative. Anxiety was more intense. The love that people felt was more intense. There was the feeling that life is precious, but that life as you knew it turned upside down for a while.”
This quiet colonial chapel, once best known for its concerts and rich history, was irrevocably altered by the tides of fate and tragedy during those months of ministry. It was transformed into a focal point for millions who seek to remember and honor the victims, rescuers and responders of the 9/11 attacks.
St. Paul’s is a member of the Community of the Cross of Nails, an international ecumenical network of more than 150 organizations in 60 countries committed to a shared ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation is not an easy path to take for many, however. The Rev. Daniel Simons, Trinity Wall Street’s priest for liturgy, hospitality and pilgrimage, has seen signs of people hanging on to anger.
“One of the first slogans I ran across when I moved here two and a half years ago is still kind of riveted in my psyche,” he said. “It was on the back of a construction worker’s jacket and it said, ‘I didn’t forget and I won’t forgive.’ It was the most interesting twist on forgive and forget that I had ever run across. It was a very intentional ‘no’ … a twisted version of what is a wonderful sentiment, which is ‘never forget’; never forget those who lost their lives in the service of others — keeping the beauty of their sacrifice alive.
“Hatred is actually a fuel, a fuel that works really well, and it powers a lot of lives,” Simons added. “We’ve seen it every 9/11; it comes out again. I don’t know how to work around it. I think we work through it. Because, like the stages of grieving, it’s just a way people feel and people get stuck there. One of our particular pieces of service is to help people move through something that is very natural, but is also potentially toxic if they stay there. I think to deny the anger, the wish for revenge, doesn’t help either — that just buries the feelings and they just come out some other way.”
Simons said that the work at St. Paul’s Chapel and Trinity Wall Street is not to tell people how to feel, but to “make a place for them to feel what they feel in a context where there’s always this note that is being sounded — ‘Remember to Love’ — that there is another way.”
Remember to Love is the theme of Trinity’s 10th-anniversary commemoration of 9/11.
“There’s a lot of learning about ‘the other’ that we have to do,” DeChamplain said. “To be in dialogue with someone is not the same as ‘I must accept their point of view.’ It’s saying, ‘We must share those things which unite us and try to understand our differences.’”
Approximately 1.5 million people visit the chapel every year, and that number is expected to increase once the 9/11 Memorial and Museum opens on the 10th anniversary. “St. Paul’s is one of the most unique places in New York City,” Brockman said. “There is a daily influx of tourists from Iowa to Iceland and yet you have a congregation that worships there on Sunday. To try to merge the two is a challenge — an exciting challenge.”
Simons said the parish has recognized the importance of its ministry to pilgrims. “I think we’re starting to recognize the fact that we are all pilgrims; and that we are welcoming pilgrims and not necessarily tourists; and that there is a difference between tourism and pilgrimage, although the line is sometimes fine, and sometimes it’s just one of awareness,” Simons said. “Sometimes a tourist walks into St. Paul’s and becomes a pilgrim, or discovers that they were a pilgrim and just didn’t know it.”
He said some people experience similar moments at Trinity Wall Street. “They come into Trinity Church to see it because it was ‘on their list’ but something comes over them. They sit down in a pew for 30 minutes and they become ‘lost’ somewhere and something just happens to them.”
Visitors file into St. Paul’s from two directions: from the main doors on bustling Broadway, often streaming out of tour buses, or from the Church Street side, walking through the historic cemetery shaded by beautiful sycamore trees that obscure the ever-larger construction of the glass-and-steel Freedom Tower on the World Trade Center site. Inside, the city noise seems to drop away. Voices become hushed. Visitors move slowly past displays that encircle a small altar and wooden chairs.
There are many displays. One is full of teddy bears, another is filled with rescue workers’ patches, another is a sleeping cot used by volunteers. The displays tell stories of love, compassion, sacrifice and faith. But there is one display that draws each visitor the longest. The Memorial Altar is covered with photos of victims of 9/11 crowded together — myriad faces reflecting lives cut short. People standing before this memorial grow solemn and their eyes mist with tears. Loss becomes a harsh reality during that moment, not merely a vague memory of a decade-old tragedy.
Lauren McCulloch was visiting from California with her husband and two young daughters on one recent day. She said they were living in New Jersey during the time of the attacks. “It’s important to remember,” she said simply, adding that children need to see for themselves what happened on 9/11 so they understand how important it was, and still is.
St. Paul's Prayers for Peace is a service created by volunteers in the aftermath of 9/11. “It is very simple, very powerful and very brief,” Brockman said. “It’s a 10-minute service held daily at St. Paul’s. It’s a key part of our work with the Community of the Cross of Nails. Millions of people have participated in this service since 2001.” The Bell of Hope stands outside the chapel’s back doors. The city of London gave the bell to the city of New York in memory of the 9/11 victims. St. Paul’s keeps the bell in trust for the city. It is rung to remember victims of terrorist attacks around the world, most recently in memory of the massacre victims in Norway. It is always rung each year on 9/11.
During the 9/11 ministry, the walls of the gallery in the chapel “were just covered with banners and posters and cards that people had sent in from all across the country and all across the world to support the rescue and recovery workers who were gathering here,” Brockman said. Also during that time, pews filled the center of the chapel, and they became resting places for responders and rescue workers. One pew at the back of the chapel still has a fireman’s coat lying across it.
Catherine Kohn is a reporter, editor and layout designer who resides in Bohemia, New York.