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St. Paul’s Chapel in Wake of WTC Disaster: “An Organic New Ministry Finds Us”

Two weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center and one week after the planned rebooting of his alternative worship services, the Rev. Lyndon Harris, pastor of St. Paul’s Chapel, charged with developing ministries there, found himself unable to seek out a new congregation – they’d been too busy finding him.

For suddenly and unexpectedly, following the September 11 disaster, as thousands of rescuers, recovery workers, volunteers, journalists, and local residents converged near the junction of Liberty and Church streets, St. Paul’s Chapel, directly in front of the World Trade Center, became the focal point of respite from the heart-and-backbreaking efforts now taking place at the site.

That Tuesday morning, Lyndon Harris reports, he’d been at the offices of Trinity Church Wall Street at 74 Trinity Place, when the first plane hit. “I heard a boom, and then smoke. We realized things were pretty bad,” he says, in his soft South Carolina cadence, “pretty soon.” Trinity’s preschool, housed next door, needed evacuating and Lyndon and other Trinity staff and clergy spent the first part of their ordeal leading all the children to safety before fleeing the building themselves.

“When I left Trinity that morning,” he remembers, “I thought for certain that the chapel had been destroyed.”

The next day, trudging to work through dust and debris, Fr. Harris found the beautiful old building, one of the most stunning examples of contemporary baroque architecture in the United States, the place where George Washington had worshipped while president, completely intact, without so much as a single window harmed. “I can tell you,” he says solemnly, “that that was an emotional moment. And then when I looked out at our graveyard which faces the Trade Center and saw it covered in six inches of ash – well, I can promise you that this graveyard is truly sacred ground now.”

St. Paul’s had survived but, the question was, what shape was it in? The first step was to determine if the building was structurally sound. After an inspection by engineers, with the chapel pronounced fit for occupancy, the more pressing question became what would St. Paul’s do with its near-miraculous good fortune? As emergency crews by the dozen continued working round the clock over on Church Street, Lyndon Harris and his associates began exploring the possibilities of how they could pitch in and help out.

With no phone service or electricity, on Friday, September 15, Fr. Harris was evaluating what services the chapel might offer a community in need when the first Seamen’s Church Institute volunteers arrived at St. Paul’s, carting food, clothing, and other much-needed supplies.

Seamen’s Church, located at 241 Water Street in the South Street Seaport – an outreach ministry of the Episcopal Church to seafarers – organized the first relief efforts at St. Paul’s. Coordinating the activity of scores of volunteers recruited by Manhattan’s General Theological Seminary, the ministry enabled St. Paul’s Chapel to provide hundreds of hungry, tired, dirty, and often stressed-out rescue workers with everything from coffee and meals to eye drops, clean underwear, and a place to catch a little sleep.

“We were grilling up hamburgers and hot dogs on four separate grills, 24/7, right there on Broadway,” Lyndon recalls with humor, “that is, until the Department of Health finally shut us down!”

Strategically placed near what was now known as “Ground Zero,” St. Paul’s began functioning as a haven for the emergency crews and anyone else in need during those first terrible days. “People were eating, sleeping, and washing here,” says Fr. Harris, “and all this by candlelight and flashlight at first, until Verizon and Con Ed set up crude lamps for us so that people wouldn’t get hurt walking through the place.”

On Saturday, September 22, Labor of Love, the national Episcopal relief effort based in Asheville, North Carolina, spearheaded by Bethany Anne Putnam, arrived, bringing with it its own group of volunteers, all of them experienced in offering support and guidance during a crisis and all of them skilled in disaster relief. That evening, electricity was finally restored to the chapel. “We actually had lights for the 6pm Sunday service,” Lyndon reports.

With the help of Trinity Grants Program administrator Courtney Cowart, whose cousin, Martin Cowart, is a New York City restaurateur, St. Paul’s began receiving donations of food and even fully prepared hot meals from restaurants and vendors, including Dean & DeLuca and the Tribeca Grill.

“That first week after the disaster,” Fr. Harris remarks, “we had a really fluid staff of volunteers working at the chapel, making calls for all sorts of donations. We had all kinds of people walking in, offering us their services on behalf of the rescue workers, everything from massage therapists to grief counselors to podiatrists.”

And, as the first week passed and then the second, St. Paul’s continued to be a community resource, at once a practical comfort station and a place to regroup and recover spiritually.

As rescue worker Luis Ramirez, a member of the NYPD’s 44th Precinct in the Bronx, says, reaching for a coffee and Krispy Kreme jelly donut while taking a break from his sixteen-hour shift: “I’m very surprised by all the services they’ve got for us here. It’s amazing,” he adds, looking around at the busy volunteers bustling about on St. Paul’s elegant portico.

Long tables are piled high with fresh fruit – bananas, apples, oranges – and stacked with cans and cans of yellow cling peaches. Boxes overflow with candy, cookies, chips, power bars, gum, and, oddly, filterless Camel cigarettes. A young woman walks by, dressed in a pale gray t-shirt graphically proclaiming “Labor of Love” and “Inspiring Episcopalians to Assist Communities in Need.” Somehow, she’s juggling three one-gallon jars of Skinny Delight orange drink. Enormous cardboard boxes of donated foodstuffs keep arriving, marked “assorted pastries” or “sandwiches.” Two NYPD officers pass by, on their way back to duty, helmets filled with Juicy Fruit gum and assorted snacks. A tall gray-haired man, a volunteer in a white Red Cross polo shirt, marked Santa Monica, CA, asks, “Does anyone know where the mayonnaise is? It was here last night…”

On Broadway, Con Edison is repairing the gas lines, while Verizon trucks pass in between police vehicles and fire trucks. Personnel from a slew of federal and city agencies are in evidence --FEMA, the NYPD, the Fire Transit and Parks departments, even the National Guard in camouflage. Sirens are going constantly. Luis takes another sip and says: “This place is great. I got a massage here a few days back… And the building itself, wow! The noise here on the street is completely overwhelming but in the chapel it’s so quiet. The doors don’t even have to be closed. You just walk in and it’s total calm, total peace.”

For Father Harris, the past two weeks have been, as they have been for so many others, life-changing, with little time for reflection. “I was preparing to re-launch our new alternative worship services that we premiered this summer,” he recalls, “on Monday the 17th.” The services, combining jazz, gospel, the scriptural chanting known as Taizé, hip hop music and “sound painting,” designed to create a new congregation, to bring together a diverse mix of people of different ages, races, and ethnicities to worship with a thoroughly contemporary approach, are now -- temporarily -- on hold.

Yet, as Lyndon points out, nonetheless, St. Paul’s Chapel now has “a brand new congregation, a wonderful, organic new ministry that we didn’t find; with the events of September 11th, they found us! The community we’re serving just came and got us.

“At St. Paul’s, we’d been thinking we needed to reach out but, instead, people reached out to us. This experience has really taught me that one of the most important ministries of St. Paul’s during this crisis has been to accept the gifts of others, to accept their ministries, as well. Everyone wants to pull together, to work through our grief and nurture our hopes together.

“I believe,” he adds, “that St. Paul’s wasn’t spared because it was holier than anyone who died there across the street, but because we are here to minister to and accept the ministry of our community.

“You know, the other night, the Waldorf delivered dinner here for all the workers and volunteers. Sitting there, on the porch, a nice breeze blowing, eating fried chicken with some new-found friends – I felt like I was back down South. Here at St. Paul’s we’re just trying to keep on top of everything, finding community in our shared tragedy and offering that community a ministry of hospitality and support.”

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