From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
St. Paul's Chapel in New York still providing 'radical hospitality'
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
(www.episcopalchurch.org/ens/2001-276.html) 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,
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
"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
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.
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
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."
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
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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