From the Worldwide Faith News archives

St. Paul's Chapel in New York still providing 'radical hospitality'

Date Fri, 14 Dec 2001 12:22:41 -0500 (EST)


St. Paul's Chapel in New York still providing 'radical hospitality'

by Mary Donovan

     (Editor's note: The following account is an update from a previous
( visit by Mary Donovan 
to St. Paul's Chapel  in the wake of the terrorist attacks against 
the World Trade Center September 11.)

     (ENS) On November 13, I returned to St. Paul's Chapel to catch 
another glimpse of the continuing ministry there.

     The port-a-potties that stood in front of the church are gone and 
the wrought iron walls of the churchyard are covered with the 
now-familiar posters, messages, and photographs, with fresh flowers 
hanging in bunches here and there. The sidewalk along Broadway has 
reopened and is thronged with people, some bustling by and many stopping 
to read a sign or sign one of the large messages of support.

     The large signboard at the entrance proclaims "Rescue Workers 
Only/ We are not presently open to the public. Our ministry right now 
is to all of the courageous relief workers who are working at Ground 
Zero. We will be welcoming the public back to St. Paul's as soon as 
possible." A gentle guard at the entrance checks the tags of those 
who walk in.

     Inside the dust and gloom of my previous visit are gone. The 
electricity is back on; the crystal chandeliers glisten and almost 
every available space on the walls and along the backs of the pews 
is festooned with messages of love and support from around the world.

     Hanging from the balcony are huge posters, one addressed "To 
New York City and all the rescuers: Keep your spirits up. Oklahoma 
loves you." On a huge American flag from Cedar Springs, Michigan, 
hundreds of hands cut from white tissue paper and signed by 
individuals are placed in rows on a red background to form the flag's 
stripes. They flutter in the breeze to add movement and life to the 
riot of color and decoration that is everywhere. 

     Blankets and pillows are still carefully folded at the end of 
each pew; a row of beds is now in evidence along the far left aisle. 
And still seated here and there throughout the nave are small clusters 
of people, some quietly talking, some simply sitting alone.

'We're here for you'

     The first table you encounter sports a sign with the familiar 
shield and the words "The Episcopal Church: We're here for you." 
Displayed there are stacks of the special "O God make speed to save 
us" edition of Forward Day By Day, pamphlets of Bible readings, 
small crosses free for the taking to become "the cross in my pocket" 
and beaded prayer ropes crocheted by the Sisters of St. Margaret

     At the next table, the volunteer coordinator sits with her 
schedule calendar, volunteer sign-up sheet, and a constantly ringing 
cell phone. Bandaids, cough drops, medical supplies, etc. are still 
available, though in far smaller quantities. Coffee, tea, soft drinks 
and snacks are available at the back of the church. A podiatrist is at 
work in the George Washington pew; behind the screen to the left of 
the pulpit, chiropractic and massage therapy are available.

     One is struck by the sense of steady efficiency that marks the 
atmosphere. The work here has been organized and regularized. The 
round-the-clock ministry is carried out by two teams of 12 volunteers, 
each working 12-hour shifts. Three hot meals are served at regular 
hours from a table at the back of the church (the weather forced the 
end of outdoor meal service on the porch.) Hot soup is provided at 
3:00 a.m. for the nighttime visitors and the number of people 
seeking refuge during the night is about equal to those who come 
in the daytime.

     "We're even providing wake-up calls," one person told me. "The 
workers just leave the time they need to be awakened along with the 
number of the bed or pew where they are sleeping and someone will tap 
gently on their shoulders at the appointed hour."

Volunteers from everywhere

     The volunteers continue to come from far and near, mostly from 
Episcopal churches but also from other denominations and secular 
groups. The volunteers on Tuesday were from Octagon, a sports 
marketing company in Connecticut that has sent several teams. 
Each group is asked to bring a clergyperson with them, both to 
provide a spiritual presence at St. Paul's and to help process 
the experience back home.

     The Rev. Pam Strobel from Christ Church in Greenwich, 
Connecticut, was with the Octagon team that day. I spoke to 
her outside the church on Broadway where some volunteers are 
stationed with magic markers to hand to anyone who would like 
to add a note to the displayed posters. 

     "We do a lot of impromptu counseling with passers-by out 
here," Pam said, "and get lots of encouragement. I spoke with 
a rabbi today from London who assured me that his congregation 
back home was offering prayers for the people of New York." 

     Inside, Miriam Schroeder, a young graphics design artist 
with Octagon, told me why she was here. 

     "Everyone sends money," she said, "but I really wanted to 
be here. I like being able to put my smile out there as the 
workers come though so hopefully they can walk away with a smile, 

Pilgrimage place

     Early on, Katherine Avery came to St. Paul's with a team 
from Church of the Advent in Spartanburg, in the Diocese of 
Upper South Carolina. She had just graduated from the University 
of the South at Sewanee and hadn't yet found a job. She has one 
now. As coordinator of volunteers and of supplies, she sits at 
the entrance desk with her cell phone in one hand and the daily 
schedule in the other answering questions from several directions 
at once.

     "I will work here until they kick me out the door," she said. 
"This is so cool! It is so rare that people flock to a church just 
to give something. St. Paul's has become a pilgrimage place. It is 
awesome." She now has volunteers scheduled through December.

     Alternating with Katherine as volunteer coordinator is Diane 
Reiners, an actress who has managed to keep up her daily (or nightly) 
shift and also attend auditions and even work on a performance. 
"We are a site friendly to the construction workers and sanitation 
workers as well as the uniformed officers," she told me. "People 
who come in here acknowledge that they are in a sacred space, a 
place of God. They are tired and worn and they visibly find a 
sense of relief here. 

     "We will generally have about 600 people come through each 
night. The night visitors are quieter, they tend to come in alone 
or in pairs. Conversations about religion, about faith and God, 
seem more frequent at night."

     Good safe food

     Martin Cowart is the food service captain. He had operated 
a restaurant in Manhattan which had just closed and was pondering 
his next move when he had a call from his cousin, Courtney Cowart 
(a General Theological Seminary graduate who now works for the 
Trinity Grants Program). "Martin, we need someone who knows about 
food," was her invitation. 

     He came to St. Paul's and has been there ever since.

     "The food we serve here must be safe, Martin explained. We 
can't put the workers we are feeding at risk. So we must not 
accept food donated by individuals, only food from kitchens 
licensed by the NYC Health Department can be served. Now we 
have regular deliveries in the type of hot trays that caterers 
use from some of the best restaurants in town--Bouley Bakery, 
the Waldorf Astoria, Eli's Bakery, Dallas Brothers Barbeque, 
Zabar's. We even had Cajun Caterers from Louisiana come up one 
week to serve jambalaya, red beans and rice and shrimp itoffie. 

     "We're serving 2,000 to 3,000 meals a day. All the workers 
tell us our food is the best available at Ground Zero. Some of 
this food is donated but we pay for most of it now. We've had 
innumerable gifts from churches and organizations towards the 
food fund." 

     Martin worked almost round-the-clock for the first few 
days. He has now developed a roster of friends who share the 
food service direction with him. 

Radical hospitality

     Religious services have resumed with a Eucharist held each 
day at noon, often with the visiting volunteer clergy serving 
with the Rev. Lyndon Harris at the altar. "We see many people 
awakened more deeply to faith," he said. "And some still wrestling 
with difficult issues and losses."

     A few weeks ago on the The Oprah Show, Officer Douglas of 
the New York Police Department described the scene at St. Paul's 
Chapel as "an oasis of heaven in the midst of Hell." Harris wouldn't 
necessarily claim that description of the work. "Our mission is 
simply to offer radical hospitality to everyone who walks through 
these doors." 

     Sister Grace, a novice from the Society of St. Margaret who 
had been assigned to Trinity in August, has been a constant source 
of help and good cheer. She had gone for a much-needed retreat 
when I visited. In her place was Sister Christine, whose forthright 
manner and twinkling eyes made her easily approachable. I watched 
her show a big tough policeman how to light a votive candle, then 
she took his hand and they stood for a moment in quiet prayer.

     Musical concerts entertain workers two days a week. Organized 
by Ralph Farris, musicians from across the city have offered a 
wide variety of musical programs--classical music, jazz, even 
rock and blues.

     All this activity has strained the staff of Trinity Church 
which administers St. Paul's Chapel, as David Jette, Trinity's 
head verger, freely admits. "It pained me to see the podiatrists 
in the George Washington pew," he said. "And the thought of 
removing all the scotch-taped posters and pictures from the walls 
fills me with dread. And yet, never have I experienced Trinity 
feeling so right to me. Our history has connected the present 
work with the past and the future in a very real way. Trinity 
has never been more relevant to this neighborhood. We didn't 
have to invent what to do; we just had to be who we are."

     Trinity's rector, the Rev. Daniel P. Matthews, is justly 
proud of what has been accomplished. He said, "Trinity is deeply 
grateful to the Seamen's Church Institute and the General 
Theological Seminary for the creativity and imagination they 
showed in beginning the ministry of St. Paul's and to all the 
volunteers from many different parishes and organizations who 
have helped to keep it going. We have also had wonderful 
financial support from around the country. St. Thomas' Church 
near Savannah even held a parade as part of its fundraising 
effort and sent us $10,000. It has been an enormous privilege 
for us to have been involved in this ministry." 

Services resume

     On other fronts, Sunday services resumed at Trinity 
Church on November 4--once the New York Police Department 
allowed access to the building. The chapel is open daily for 
the noon-day Eucharist, but participants must be directed up 
the left aisle because two jeeps equipped with cherry-pickers 
sit in the center aisle, lifting workers to complete the 
process of cleaning the ceiling.

     "We are now being challenged to find creative ways of 
providing for visitors from all of the city, the nation and 
the world who want to make a pilgrimage to lower Manhattan to 
express their love and concern with those who have been affected 
by this tragedy," said Matthews.

     Serving directly at Ground Zero was a group of Episcopal 
clergy specially trained to deal with the emergency workers 
and organized by the Bishop of the Armed Forces, the Rt. Rev. 
George Packard. That ministry too has been "regularized" and 
now all Ground Zero chaplains must be licensed, trained and 
deployed by the Red Cross. The Armed Forces office will direct 
any Episcopal clergy who want to volunteer to the proper Red 
Cross office.

     Across town at the Seamen's Church Institute, life is 
basically back to normal. Volunteers there are busy packing 
the boxes of Christmas gifts and handmade knitted sweaters, 
scarves and caps for "Christmas at Sea." Heightened security 
concerns will make delivery of the boxes to ships along the 
inland waterways more difficult. In the port of New York, 
non-American seafarers cannot leave their ships so the chaplains 
must take their services aboard the ships.

     (For more information and photos, check Trinity's 

--Mary S. Donovan teaches history at Hunter College in New 
York, and is the author of A Different Call: Women's 
Ministries in the Episcopal Church, 1850-1920.

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