Sacred space: Chaplains talk about what changed on September 11

January 22, 2002

These are people who have been escorting others through their grief and shock while their own psychic and spiritual wounds bled.

During a three-day conference at the Episcopal Church Center, more than 25 chaplains got together to talk about what their ministries have been like since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and how they've gotten through it all.

The January 8-10 conference was organized by the Office of the Bishop for the Armed Services, Health Care and Prison Ministries to review the first 100 days since September 11 and to plan next steps. It included a visit to the observation platform at Ground Zero and to nearby St. Paul's Chapel, which continues to serve as a sanctuary for police, firefighters and other workers.

The tour of Ground Zero--the seven-story 'pile' is now at ground level and below--was 'very sad, very sad,' said the Rev. Marshall Scott, chaplain at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. 'In the rest of the world, a lot of people die, but it's hard to grasp this number of people and this level of corporate grief.'

Scott led Compline inside St. Paul's, which has been transformed into a tribute to those who have worked 24 hours a day to recover the dead and remove the rubble. Handmade posters, mementos and gifts from around the world cover every surface save the pew cushions and around the altar.

The next day, the chaplains gathered at the Church Center to talk about the impact that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had had on their lives and work.

'I almost froze looking at the faces' at the Pentagon, said the Rev. James B. 'Jay' Magness, a Navy chaplain to the U.S. Atlantic Fleet from Norfolk, Virginia. 'I don't know when I've seen such fear, people running out of their shoes trying to get away.'

Among the issues discussed were the heightened need for security, which Commander Jeffrey Seiler of San Diego said has come 'not just to our doorstep but into the house'; the danger of pretending that grief ends; and the role of the church in a time of war.

'The new normal is to pretend normal,' said Bishop George Packard, who heads the chaplaincy office at the church center.

Perhaps the wisest if simplest prescription came from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the noted expert on death and dying. The Rev. David Henritzy, who coordinates health-care chaplaincies in Packard's office, related how he had escorted Kübler-Ross to Ground Zero. Her reaction was stark: 'Let them cry.'