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Of Dust, A Church Bell And A Face Mask -- A Story From Ground Zero

On Tuesday September 11, like many others occupying offices in the skyscrapers that reached to the knees of the World Trade Center in New York, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Paul Matthews, Rector of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, thought he was going to die. The south tower fell, and he rushed outside with the others into the smoke and debris -- or, as he puts it, into “the black.” He was given a white mask to breathe through and made his way slowly south.

Twelve days later it was back to the pulpit, even though Trinity Church proper, on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, is in an area off-limits to the public.

For the second Sunday in a row, Dr. Matthews’ flock gathered for a 3 pm service at what is affectionately being called “Trinity South” -- the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, on State Street, a Roman Catholic church more than willing to extend a hand to the Anglicans up the road.

As parishioners arrived for Eucharist, the sweet fragrance of a thick cluster of flowers laid in a memorial to the dead and missing hovered before the entrance to the pristine, ovular shrine.

It is perhaps not surprising, given Dr. Matthews’ experience, that he began his sermon with one word: “Dust.”

Trinity Church and its accompanying office buildings and chapel stand in a cluster near the World Trade Center. During the attack, the church took a smattering of debris. Smoke and dust choked parts of the interior, and it shook fiercely as the towers fell, but it still appears structurally sound.

“We couldn’t imagine how the whole of south Manhattan island could be covered with dust,” Dr. Matthews continued. “It wasn’t long before we began saying, what should we dust off first? What should be the priority in getting rid of some of the dust?”

He began to itemize a sacred cleaning list, ordered by the practical necessities of service to the bereaved and the traumatized.

First, pews were dusted, so people could rest, pray, and receive counseling. Then the prayer books were dusted. “People need to pick up the prayer books and look at them to find the prayer that speaks to them in this moment,” he explained: “Dust. Dust the prayerbooks.”

Next, the votive candles. “Dust the votive candles.” Dusting quickly took on a deeper, symbolic importance: “Values are beginning to be different, and people are beginning to say, ‘what’s it all about and what do we need to dust off and what do we need to keep?’”

Dr. Matthews said Americans were radically questioning their motivations and needs. “We are a people eager to find out what matters and what doesn’t. The values systems we all hold are being adjusted, and we’re letting some of those things in our lives gather dust. And we even already know what they are.”

He paused, letting the point sink in, and then continued with a story about St. Paul’s Chapel at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street.

He had asked Jim Doran and Michael Borrero, Trinity executives responsible for the church’s property in the area, if they could ring the bells at St. Paul’s at noon on Friday September 14, in response to President Bush’s request for prayer and church-bell ringing. The two didn’t think so, but an hour later, Borrero called back on his cell phone.

“Guess what?” Dr. Matthews quoted Borerro as saying. He and Doran had crawled into the bell tower. “I saw an iron piece of metal,” said Borrero, “and I picked it up and I crawled up to that bell and I beat the hell out of it.”

When Borrero went down the tower again, they were told that emergency workers who heard the bell took their hats off in silence and stood, as if saying, “The Lord God reigns even in this Hell,” said Dr. Matthews.

Blue 1982 Episcopal Hymnals, the kind Trinty’s congregation is familiar with, had been brought over in boxes to the September 23 service. There was no Sunday bulletin, so Owen Burdick, Trinty’s choirmaster, called out page numbers before each hymn. Once again, members of Trinity’s choir were present, singing from the balcony with world-class power and precision.

Before the service began, Burdick announced that the Offertory anthem had been written in honor of John F. Kennedy shortly after his death by renowned Anglican composer, Herbert Howells. Burdick stressed that with the heroism of rescue workers just up the street, an anthem for a single fallen hero would be appropriate: “Take him, earth, for cherishing; to they tender breast receive him. Body of a man I bring thee, noble even in its ruin.”

Trinity Church, at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, is open, but only for a selective kind of business: its ministry is limited to offering emergency workers a sanctuary in which to pray, relax, and receive spiritual counsel from Trinity and volunteer clergy in the now dusted pews. The church will be open to the public and her parishioners when the area is deemed safe.

At the end of his sermon, Dr. Matthews held up his white mask. “I have my symbol, my sacrament…" he said. "When that smoke was so thick, I thought we were all going to die. Someone handed me this, and I can’t tell you what a treasure it was.”

He has worn it every day he has been down at Ground Zero: “It means life to me, this little inexpensive mask. It means more than I could ever imagine such a simple thing could mean. Lots of simple things are meaning a lot more to you and to me than they ever have before. Maybe someday my grandchild will find this and say, ‘My grandfather wore that and it saved his life, back in 2001.’”

Trinity’s pulpit, peripatetic though it may be, is dust-free, and in use every Sunday. Dr. Matthews finished with the Collect for the day:

“Grant us Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly. And even now, while we’re placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to that which shall endure.”

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