Remembering September 11

Photo: Tim Martin

1.

What I remember most vividly about that day was the color of the sky—a deep, clear blue that we remarked on to strangers in awe and wonder, minutes earlier. I was on a crosstown bus transporting a heavy bag of books to my new office at Church of the Heavenly Rest on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where I had recently joined the staff as Director of Religious Education. Just before my stop, the bus driver’s radio alerted us to the fact that there’d been an accident in lower Manhattan and all buses were being diverted and would not be allowed below 14th Street.

Tuesdays are staff meeting days in many churches, and at Heavenly Rest we began at 9 a.m. with Morning Prayer and the news that a plane had hit one of the twin towers. When someone rushed in to tell us of the second plane, we realized that this was vastly different from the sad but understandable accident we could imagine involving a small passenger plane. The sexton immediately went and got the Paschal candle, lit it, and placed it in the center of the chancel, where it stayed lit for months. Immediately we began planning a worship service for that evening. Whenever the phones rang—and service was sporadic that day—it was someone asking how they could help.

Around lunchtime, I went out with the communications director and put up flyers announcing the service in shop windows and on pillars and posts. As we did so, we noticed people in twos and threes—almost never alone—coated from head to toe in white dust, slowly and silently streaming up Fifth Avenue. At 5 pm, the church was filled with people from all over the neighborhood, whether or not they had any connection to Heavenly Rest, whether or not they identified as Christian. Communion was offered to every single person who was present. In the days and weeks that followed, I held fast to the words of Psalm 46 that was chosen for worship:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;
Though its waters rage and foam,
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her;
she shall not be overthrown;
God shall help her at the break of day.
The nations make much ado, and the kingdoms are shaken;
God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Come now and look upon the works of the LORD,
what awesome things he has done on earth.
It is he who makes war to cease in all the world;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
and burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, then, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations;
I will be exalted in the earth.”
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

2.

The Gospel that was appointed for Sunday, September 16, 2001 was Luke 15:1–10: God searches for all the lost ones, finds us, and brings us home, rejoicing.

For no reason other than I felt drawn, I went back to church after lunch. As I came through the front door and my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could see two people sitting in the front pew of the otherwise empty sanctuary: a woman and a young girl. I grabbed a few blank index cards and a fistful of crayons from a basket, walked over, and knelt beside them. Softly, I introduced myself and handed the child the crayons and index cards.

“This is Annie, and I’m her aunt,” the woman told me. “Annie’s father died on Tuesday, and she is wondering who is keeping her safe now.”

I took a deep breath, said a silent prayer, and began.

“Well, Annie, your mother and your aunts and uncles are keeping you safe. So are the firefighters, and the police officers, the mayor and the president.” I paused and pointed to the Paschal candle in front of us. “Do you see this candle? We sometimes call it the Christ candle, and it’s there to remind us that God’s love is stronger than anything, even death. Jesus is here with us, and we are safe in God’s love.”

I don’t remember if I said anything else. What I will never forget is that Annie drew three pictures. The first was of the paschal candle, the second was of the dark church with jewel-bright stained-glass windows, and the third was the sun blazing in the sky. Annie knew. I simply reminded her.

       The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John 1:5

3.

St. Paul’s Chapel, the oldest public building in continuous use in New York City, stands opposite the site of the World Trade Center. It is the city’s only remaining Colonial-era church and by something like a miracle, it was completely undamaged on September 11, save for a one hundred-year-old sycamore tree that was uprooted in the churchyard. A survivor, too, of the Great Fire of 1776, George Washington prayed there on his inauguration day. And from October 2001 through May of 2002, St. Paul’s was a place of refuge and rest for the recovery workers. It was staffed around the clock with hundreds of volunteers, some with specialties like massage therapy and podiatry, and others who served hot meals, made up beds in pews, played the piano, prayed with the firefighters, police officers, and construction workers, and listened to their stories.

The October night I was there as a volunteer, two men arrived from South Carolina in a U-Haul truck carrying 3000 pairs of steel-toed boots. The fires were still so hot that the soles of the men’s boots were continually melting.  At midnight I went out to the smoldering pile with a few others, carrying a basket with bottles of cold water, packets of tissues, eye drops, and pewter angel tokens that had been the gift of a parishioner at the church where I was then working. The angel tokens were all the firefighters wanted. “Thank you,” they whispered over and over. Imagine.  They were thanking us.

When I got home, I found that the red tennis shoes I was wearing were entirely coated with fine white dust. They could not be cleaned. I could not throw them away, nor could I wear them again.  I think of God speaking to Moses from the burning bush:

Remove the sandals from your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.

Exodus 3:5

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.

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