I was rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Stamford, CT when the planes slammed into the towers in New York City on September 11. It was an extraordinary day: blue sky, bright sun, perfect fall weather. I was chairing an early morning board meeting for the local pastoral counseling center. I didn’t have a cell phone, but some of the other board members did. When the first call came in, we thought it was a light plane that had crashed into the first tower; it wasn’t clear that it was an attack. As the calls kept coming, the horror became clear.
I returned to the church, which was normally kept open during daylight hours, and I sat in the sanctuary and prayed. At one point, a pastor associated with the local council of churches came in and asked if I would go with a group of clergy to the Swiss Bank. At that time, the Swiss Bank’s trading floor in Stamford was the largest in the world, and they were sending out a call for help to the local clergy because they had lost so many colleagues in the World Trade Center. I decided that I needed to stay at the church at least until our scheduled noonday prayers. We did have a larger than normal attendance for noon prayers, perhaps ten people mostly from the parish. I read the Great Litany. Later in the day when my associate was available to be present in the church, I did go down to the Swiss Bank, and I was given an office where I saw people who wanted to speak with a counselor.
On the Friday after 9/11, President Bush put out a request that people attend church at noon on that day. Our staff quickly put together a service. It was standing room only; most of the people were from surrounding office buildings. We had never seen them before, and saw only a few of them after. Great Litany again, hymns including America the Beautiful and the National Anthem. I gave a very brief homily on the way the events of 9/11 had revealed both the evil and the goodness of which the human heart is capable and of the way in which God’s strategy for dealing with hatred and evil is the love of Jesus on the cross.
On October 9, 2011, I responded to a call from Episcopal Church headquarters for volunteer chaplains for Ground Zero. At 12:30pm, I reported to the office of the Suffragan for the Armed Forces at 815 Second Ave, and received a very simple badge as a credential. I still have it. It has no picture or even my name but says simply that the bearer is on the staff of the Episcopal Church Center, and it gives a telephone number to call to verify the identity of the bearer. After receiving the badge, I reported to St. Paul’s Chapel and was paired with another priest; we were told to walk around the site and offer encouragement to the police, firemen, and rescue workers. There were several security checks on the way into the site. At one point after we were inside the perimeter of the site, we were stopped by a National Guard Air Force colonel.
He looked at our badges and said, “Come with me.”
I thought he was going to throw us out but he took us to a plywood shack. After disappearing into a back room, he came out with two hard hats and two respirators and said, “God bless you for being here; be safe.”
The pile was still smoking, and we were told that there were fires burning deep underground. It was absolute devastation and destruction. They had been working on the site for a month, and you couldn’t tell. That eerie white dust still covered everything, and there was an unforgettable smell which was clearly a mix of burning plastic and human flesh.
Wherever I go as a priest in clericals, there are always some people who are glad to see you, and some who are diffident and cool. But I met no one at Ground Zero who was not visibly relieved to see the clergy. You could tell the Roman Catholics: they asked for a blessing. Virtually everyone wanted to talk, and many asked for prayer. Often the talk was just chit chat, just a craving for reassuring conversation and human contact. At other times, people asked the big questions, “What did it all mean?”
I was surprised by what I didn’t meet. I didn’t meet a lot of anger. The overwhelming mood was sober and somber. To be there was to be stunned into near speechlessness by the enormity of what human beings are capable of, both for good and ill.
I remember one very burly, muscular construction worker who was sitting on a five-gallon bucket, waiting for the huge front-end loaders that were working to come over and be greased. As we came into sight, he looked up at us with a look that simply broke my heart. I can only describe it as an agony of the soul that was completely visible in his face. We stopped and prayed.
The protocol was that if human remains were found, a chaplain would be requested to come up on the pile and pray and stand vigil while the body parts were being recovered. Twice in that shift, we were waved up on the pile only to be waved off because it was a false alarm. I did see one body bag draped in a flag being removed from another part of the pile.
At one point, I was waiting with a group of New York City policemen while it was being determined whether I should go up on the pile. One of the young policemen, a man with a stutter, turned to me and said, “You are a man of God, is this, is this, is this the end of the world?”
I said that the Bible word for the end of the world is apocalypse and that I didn’t think this was the apocalypse. I explained that apocalypse means the curtain goes up, and you see who is who and what is what. I did not think this was the apocalypse, the final end, but I did think it was an apocalyptic moment, a moment when we see how things really are, a moment when good is revealed as good and evil as evil and when it is clear that we cannot stand against evil — either in people’s hearts or in the world around us — without the Savior.
It took about two hours to walk around the perimeter of the site, and, at the end of a round, we would go back to the chapel. The chapel was full of rescue workers taking a break. Most of the pews had people sleeping on them. There were pews roped off where massage therapists or crisis counselors or podiatrists or first aid workers were helping the exhausted volunteer fire and rescue and construction workers get ready to go back to their work. There was an appropriate hush in the chapel, and there were regular services of prayer at the altar. The majority of the chaplains at that time were Episcopal priests. It was the Episcopal Church’s finest hour in many ways, and I was proud of my church and felt privileged to have been there and been a witness for a brief moment.
Nearly a month later, I led a clergy retreat for the Diocese of Albany. I remember getting ready to start my talk and looking down at my feet. Though I had cleaned my shoes when I came back from Ground Zero, there was still some of that eerie white dust clinging to them.
There is a great deal of evil in the world. Many events in contemporary history are more horrific than what happened in New York on September 11, 2001. But this was the closest I had been to the black nothingness of evil. This was where it touched me in an unforgettable way. I arrived at Ground Zero already convinced that the cross of Jesus Christ was the hope of the world, and I left taken beyond conviction to a place where it was impossible to think that there was any other antidote to the venom of the serpent that had bitten us than the crucified and risen Lord breathing his life into us.