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Episcopal Priest Who Comforted Many at Ground Zero Shares 9/11 Story

September 8, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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REVEREND JANET VINCENT, Episcopal priest: He preached the Gospel, and he loved Christ. And that’s what we’re asked to imitate after him, in our own lives, and in our own way. My name is Janet Vincent. I’m an Episcopal priest for 23 years now. I live in White Plains, New York, which is 30 miles from ground zero.

Gracious God, we ask your blessing on all…

In White Plains, I’m the rector of Grace Episcopal Church and the president of the Grace Church Community Center. The evening of September 12, I received a phone call at about 11:00 p.m. And it was a woman. And she just kept telling me over and over again that her husband was dead, her husband was dead, and would I help her?

And that was how I got my introduction to ground zero. I wound up going down there within the first week of the attack, and helped her and some other widows whose husbands had died in the north tower.

I was probably on site 25 times. I wrote in my journal that I wondered if the experience would always leave me aching, and I wrote that almost a year after the attacks and several months after my last visit to ground zero.

And I have to say now, almost five years later, it still haunts me in some ways. There are haunting elements of it.

One of the most amazing experiences of going down there was the bond I made with a number of firefighters, who I got to know in various circumstances. I got to see their pain firsthand.

A FEMA worker hands me my first respirator and a hardhat. I get a quick lesson on proper fit. I tell a battalion chief that I’m here to gather some ash. He doesn’t seem surprised. He asks me if I would first come with him. They are pulling some body parts out of the pile, and he would like me to bless them.

‘There are civilians,’ he says.

I am overwhelmed and appalled, but I shake my head yes. I will follow him. I didn’t think I would get close to the wreckage. I am splattered with mud, and I can taste the grit in the air. The stench is awful.

I wear my mask until someone speaks to me, and I must answer. Can’t talk with a mask on.

I think, ‘This can’t be good for my lungs.’

I pull the mask down, and, in that moment, I am one of them. They bring me in.

I have no prayer but, ‘Oh, God,’ and the last phrase of the Hail Mary.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

I feel stripped of every comforting phrase, every bit of theology and any sense of purpose, except to be there. The being there makes me feel sick.

‘Just hold your ground,’ I think. ‘Don’t vomit and don’t turn away.’

It’s my first inkling that I am a witness. That’s my job. I never looked away.

Like many of the firefighters and others that I met down there, in those first weeks, if Osama bin Laden had been in front of me, and I had a gun in my hand, I’m sure I would have pulled the trigger.

But I have come a long way since that experience and that initial raw anger. I never know how to answer the question of, how can there be a God if this thing can happen, if this kind of destruction and violence and hatred can be let loose in the world and in our city?

Hope

All I can say is that, from the experience of being there, it was apparent to me that there -- that there is a God, that people have hope. On 9/11, I was with a friend at the church. I knew I had to make communion bread.

And I knew, instinctively, that we were going to need a lot of bread. And it turned out, that week, we did. And that communion bread became symbolic for my whole ministry at ground zero. I -- I found myself finding ways, and various ways, to feed people.

So, I would make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I would eat on the way down. I would give it to firefighters. I was bread. I was bread. And, in many ways, they became bread for me. And, at the end of the experience, I can say that I was fed as well.

I have some training as a still photographer. I did that as a young person, before I went to seminary. And, on one of my first trips down to ground zero, I actually brought an old Nikon with me and had it stuffed in a bag. But, when I brought the camera to my face and pressed the shutter, it froze. And I knew, in that moment, that I wasn't there to be a photographer. I was going to be in the moment, in the place, with nothing -- nothing between us.

A dream

Later on, I took a few pictures, because it became important to me. I had a dream. And, in that dream, I died and I was sitting on the porch of heaven with Jesus and another man that I recognized as Mohamed Atta. Mohamed Atta, one of the terrorists of 9/11.

And Jesus looks at me and he says: Well, it's wonderful that you're here, Janet, but there's one thing that -- that you might do before you go in. He says: I think you have something that belongs to him. And you should -- you might want to give it back, because he needs it. And that referred to a visit I had, had with a pulmonary doctor, who had said to me that, for the rest of my life, I would have Mohamed Atta in my lungs, for being down at ground zero and not always wearing a respirator.

And, in that moment, when Jesus says that, I wake up from the dream. And it's very clear to me that I'm not giving anything back to him. And, then, fast-forward a year, and I'm off on retreat and out on a long walk. And my breathing is great, and I'm feeling great, and everything's wonderful. And I realized that, oh, I have given it back, that somewhere along the road -- I don't know where -- and it wasn't by any will of my own, I think -- I gave it back to him.

The theme of reconciliation has, obviously, I guess, been a big one for me over these last five years. How do we -- how do we bridge this chasm of hate between cultures and people? How do we bridge it in our own communities and our own personal lives? We have to put down our need for revenge or hate, and that violence doesn't -- doesn't bring peace.

We have an essential message to share with the world: Be not afraid. Don't be afraid to live your life. That's the Easter message. Don't lose hope. And rise up. Rise up. I think 9/11 has allowed me to make freer choices. Some time in middle or late October, I'm going to be moving to Washington, D.C. I'm going to a new parish, St. Columba's.

And I think, before I go down there, I will make a visit to ground zero to say goodbye to that site, which has meant so much to me, and -- and wish it well, and maybe give it my last blessing.