The 9/11 Story You Never Heard About – written by Sandy Boyce

This weekend, we visited St Paul’s chapel, adjacent to the 9/11 memorial site. Even though it was so close to the World Trade Centre, right across the road, it was miraculously left undamaged without so much as a broken window when the towers fell. For a grueling 8 months, 24/7, relief and rescue ministry was provided by St Paul’s. The exhibition inside the chapel was moving and inspiring, telling the story of selfless volunteers supporting workers in the rescue and subsequent clean up at ‘ground zero’. The church has turned St. Paul’s into a kind of national shrine.

The surprising thing is, there was no reference to Lyndon Harris (pictured in this early video) in the various poster walls and information in the church, the pastor who was actually responsible for the refuge operation. He has been airbrushed out of the story. But it’s worth finding out more about him. (I first heard Lyndon Harris tell his side of the story at a seminar on forgiveness – how he learnt to forgive – at the 2008 Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne – Geoff)

Rev Harris joined the staff of Trinity Church/ Saint Paul’s Chapel in April 2001 in order to develop, at Saint Paul’s Chapel, a “laboratory for urban evangelism and alternative worship.” It was hoped he would re-animate the tiny group of worshipers and establish a ministry for young people. But bigger events overtook this commission.

After the 9/11 attacks, he came to believe the chapel had escaped destruction for one sole purpose: “It is the chapel of the people. St. Paul’s is the refuge for the people in the pit (ground zero).” He spontaneously opened the chapel to the firefighters, police officers and sniffer dogs, soldiers and steel workers, for all the tens of thousands who came to work and seek survivors. When the President called for a nationwide bell ringing, St Paul’s bell tower was opened. The bell was hit with a found iron pipe. Twelve times the bell was struck, and all around swirled the white dust of the dead from the 2 towers. For a brief few moments, the roar of heavy machinery subsided around Ground Zero, then complete silence, with some workers kneeling in the ashes.

Rev Harris organized food and drink, free for everyone at Ground Zero, around the clock. Over a million meals were served in 8 months. Health inspectors tried to intervene, but the police pushed them away. The steel workers welded huge grills and Harris cooked food for the people. When power was finally restored, the food was prepared in the sacristy. As time went on, New York’s top restaurants and hotel kitchens chefs prepared food for 3,000 a day. Members of the community organized several thousand volunteers who flocked to St. Paul’s: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Sikhs, Hindus. Boxes full of donations began to arrive – clothes, socks, soap, chocolate, underwear, pillows, blankets. Food arrived for the search dogs, and also overshoes on their paws. The church was full of workers sleeping in emergency beds and on benches; massages were offered for anyone who strained their back after hours of searching in the bone ash. The chapel became the triage and emergency room for the burned feet of the 9/11 rescuers. And music – jazz, Mozart, Bach. Every day someone played – ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Danny Boy’. Letters of support from children everywhere. St Paul’s became ‘heaven’s outpost’ (as described by a firefighter).

Remarkably, donations for the relief efforts kept coming in, which meant there was no financial burden on the church’s relief efforts.

So far, so good? But that’s not how the story continues…..

The Rector, who had been away for a family reunion, returned to find the chapel taken over by all this activity. He demanded that someone be held accountable for the perceived ‘utter mess’ of the chapel. He invited influential friends in the powerful law firms to witness what had happened. As expected, the lawyers were horrified by what they saw in this historic church: the filthy, the exhausted, the weary and wounded seeking refuge in the safety of St. Paul’s. “Who are all these strange people?” the Rector demanded to know. ”When will St. Paul’s once again be a church?

To which Harris replied, ” We were never more one church!”.

Pettiness got the better of the church authorities. The rescue workers and their families were refused a Thanksgiving meal. Harris was told the church’s liability insurance did not cover his activities at Ground Zero. A ‘protective custody order’ effectively closed the chapel, so it could again become a ‘beautiful chapel’. And most ironically, it was announced the chapel would close on Easter 2002. Just when the stone is rolled back from the grave, the chapel was to be closed!

Lyndon Harris was fired in October 2002, officially in order to ‘continue his theological studies without pay’. When his health failed (lung disease from constant exposure to the dust), the church left Harris and his family without even health insurance. Harris’ marriage broke down, he lost his house to foreclosure, he was declared homeless, and he had no further offers for ministry placements*.

This story is sobering for many reasons, and I haven’t even outlined the hyprocrisy and pettiness of those in authority, and their own grab for fame and fortune.

But it certainly made me reflect on the tension between keeping the church pristine and ‘holy’ as good stewards of the legacy we have inherited from our forebears – and the need for the church to be responsive in any way it can be to the mission of God in the world. It invites me to consider how we as a church reflect on using our property as a place of welcome and hospitality, reflecting God’s grace and offering God’s generosity to all. May we remember afresh Isaiah’s words, that we are called to share in preaching good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted…. to comfort all who mourn, and ….to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

May it be so.

This article includes information from HARTMUT M. HANAUSKE-ABEL, 60, a member of the parish of St. Paul in Manhattan since 1999. http://louisville-wedding-photography.net/

* Out of the ashes of Lyndon Harris’ despair, forgiveness began to bloom. He spent two years as a consultant to The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine (Episcopal) in New York City.

As his health returned, he travelled to Beirut, Lebanon, to visit Alexandra Asseily. She had begun a movement to plant a Garden of Forgiveness in her beloved Lebanon after its civil war, which claimed more than 300,000 lives. The greatest gift to one’s children, Ms. Asseily teaches, is to become a better ancestor. And that, she says, is done through forgiveness.

When he returned from Beirut, Harris joined with Dr. Fred Luskin of the Stanford Forgiveness Project to found their own non-profit group: The Gardens of Forgiveness project. They want to fulfil Asseily’s vision by planting gardens around the world. What better way to express life-affirming qualities of forgiveness than by cultivating living beauty in the earth?

Harris and Dr. Luskin also developed a forgiveness curriculum for middle-school students. Two New York City schools began teaching it four years ago, and more schools will soon come on board. The Gardens of Forgiveness project has planted gardens throughout New York State and in Chicago. The project also has partners in Durban and Soweto, South Africa; Uganda; and Liberia that are exploring planting Gardens of Forgiveness. Harris also dreams of a garden at ground zero in New York City one day, and one at Gettysburg, Pa., to help heal wounds that linger from the Civil War.

St. John’s Lutheran Church in New York’s West Village has asked him to become its full-time pastor. “They loved me back to church,” Harris says. As part of an agreement between New York’s Episcopal and Lutheran bishops, clergy between the two denominations may now serve in each other’s parishes.

Most recently, Harris travelled to Rwanda, where he hopes to plant an extensive Garden of Forgiveness in memory of the almost 1 million Tutsis who died in the 1994 genocide there. As Harris’s fellow activist, Rwandan musician Jean Paul Samputu, says: “Forgiveness is the most powerful unpopular weapon against violence that exists.”

Adds landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy, who went with Harris to Rwanda: “Having learned about forgiveness himself, Lyndon goes into the world to make that emotional experience palpable to others. He sees that by creating a garden you can stroll through and experience with all your senses, you can make a path that leads toward forgiveness, toward transformation and a state of grace.”

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4 thoughts on “The 9/11 Story You Never Heard About – written by Sandy Boyce

  1. I posted your article to my Facebook page. I'm fascinated that this episode has been airbrushed out of history because it isn't neat and clean, the way we'd like our history to be. You've done an excellent job of articulating what surely is a key area of discussion and sometimes conflict in religious congregations–what does it mean to live out our faith? I'm betting that both pastors in this story felt certain that this was exactly what they were doing.

    Like

  2. Reminds me of the story of the Good Samaritan…. I'm sure that in God's eyes the outpouring of grace and loving-kindness was more important than a clean and shiny temple. How better to worship God than to love neighbours in really practical ways?

    Like

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