We were just finishing up morning prayer in the Chapel of Christ the Lord at the Episcopal Church Center in New York when a staff member pushed open the glass doors and shouted: "A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!" Assuming initially, like everyone, that this was some terrible accident, we took a moment to pray for those involved and then hopped onto the elevators to get to our various office floors.
My unit had a small television in a snack room, and so six or eight of us gathered around watching the news and the terrible pictures until it dawned on us that it really had happened -- and that this was no accident.
I spent the next hour navigating jammed cell-phone lines trying to reach my wife, Susanne, who was attending a deacons' meeting at the General Theological Seminary some 20 blocks closer than I was to what came to be known as "Ground Zero." After I finally reached her, I walked into my office and looked out my window to find vast streams of people aimlessly walking up Second Avenue. Most of them looked dazed, but normal. Some still bore the ashes that had fallen out of the sky when first one great tower and then the second fell. Their footprints left a trail of ash in that horrible aftermath.
In the office next door, Bishop George Packard, then the church's chief of Armed Forces chaplains and federal ministries, was trying to get through to the Diocese of New York to coordinate our outreach efforts. Within hours, he'd posted a sign-up sheet for clergy who worked at the church center to volunteer as chaplains at Ground Zero. In those early hours, we assumed there would be many injured as well as killed: hundreds rushed to hospitals, last rites needing administration, many bodies to recover and many funerals at which to officiate. As it turned out, hospitals sat nearly empty as few survived the attack.
In the weeks that followed, Susanne and I took our rotation as chaplains at St. Paul’s Chapel. Ash covered its building and graveyard but, miraculously, this 235-year-old structure, a chapel of Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, (with George Washington's favorite pew intact) was not structurally damaged.
St. Paul's became the primary oasis for first responders, other police and firefighters, and construction workers. Food was served, naps were taken, massages were given. Clergy counseled the traumatized young men and women through the unimaginable. I remember Susanne sitting for a long time with a young African-American construction worker who uncovered the body of an airline stewardess in the rubble. He would never be the same.
I guess none of us would ever be the same. Later, I officiated at the funeral of Tim Haviland, the 41-year-old son of one of our priests the Rev. Doug Haviland, and his wife, Betty, from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ames, Iowa. Tim, who worked on the 96th floor of the north tower, was one of thousands killed that day. We actually had two funerals -- one in the church center chapel and the other in a large funeral home to accommodate Tim’s many young friends and co-workers.
In 2006, for the fifth anniversary of the attacks, Susanne wrote Prayers of the People that were used all over the country and included petitions like this: For those who acted selflessly that day; for police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, health-care professionals, first responders and construction workers, chaplains, cooks, and for ordinary citizens who were transformed from strangers to friends. For teachers and parents who held our children while in danger and who guide them now into hope ….
Providentially, the first lesson from Scripture in the Revised Common Lectionary for Sept. 11 concerns the children of Israel escaping their Egyptian slave-owners through the Red Sea. An ancient Jewish Midrash on this story imagines that, when the waters closed over their oppressors, the chosen ones cheered. Miriam gathered the women together, they played their musical instruments and sang "The Song of the Sea," and everyone danced for joy.
But when the angels in heaven began to join in the celebration, God rebuked them asking why they were rejoicing when God’s creatures were dying. "Are not these Egyptians my children too?" the Ancient of Days asked. And, chastened, the angels began to weep alongside the Holy One.
This is not a day for political rhetoric or second-guessing or even congratulatory comments about our finally having "gotten" Osama bin Laden. 9/11 is a day to remember and to weep and to pray. We pray for victims and perpetrators, families and friends, nations and their leaders, people of all religions and people of none.