The first response for us in the church was to offer a pastoral presence. So we
simply put on our black cassocks and began to minister to many, many people
that were entering the church. Some were wailing out loud. It was frightening.
Some were walking like zombies. We simply sat there in different places in the
church. Some were kneeling. Some of the priests stood.
We offered a presence. There wasn't much we could say, and the news was still
developing. So we would take shifts, and some would go back and watch the
People were coming into the church from midtown Manhattan, from corporate
offices. They had obviously seen this on television or heard it on the radio
and it was breaking news. And it was interesting -- they went to the first
place of sacred space they could find. ...
I remember one woman in particular who came in off the street. As she entered
the church, she was screaming, yelling, arguing with someone who wasn't there.
She walked up the aisle slowly, weaving back and forth, carrying in her hand a
rosary. ... I couldn't make out what she was saying. But what I sensed -- as
she came up near me and passed me as if I wasn't even there -- as she went up
the steps to the altar, she was obviously wrestling with God. Shaking her fist
up at the altar, yelling, weeping. ... Having it out with the Almighty. ...
Then she turned to me and asked me where the other churches were. Obviously,
she still had some work to do. ...
[What made you go down to Ground Zero?]
After the president called us to a time of prayer at noon on the Friday
following Sept. 11, as the day was coming to an end just as I arrived home, I
looked at my wife and my children, who were having pizza. It was the usual
Friday night when we have pizza and watch a movie together. I looked at my wife
and I said, "Honey, I have to go." Without hesitation she said, "OK." So I
literally turned around after putting down my briefcase, kissed my wife and
kids goodbye, and hailed a cab. I found myself in traffic in Times Square. I
said to the driver, "Take me to Canal Street." He said, "Where are you going?"
I said, "I'm going to Ground Zero." He said, "You'll never get in. What are
you, from out of town?" I said, "Oh, I'll get in." Because I knew I had to be
there. I was driven there, not just in the taxi, but spiritually.
When I arrived at Canal Street, I saw the first police barricade. I pulled out
my I.D. and the policeman let me right through. I said, "How do I get to the
site?" He said, "Follow that bright light ahead," which was a cruel but
accurate way of getting me to my destination, because it was very dark there
underneath those bright lights. There were a few more barricades that I managed
to negotiate my way through, although I wasn't supposed to be in there.
So I found myself heading toward the site. I managed to pick up a hardhat and a
gas mask, even though I was wearing a clerical collar and a suit. I walked up
to the edge of the perimeter. I observed for a while and talked to some rescue
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was hell on earth, and it was alive,
even with all the death in it. Fires, toxic smoke. The screams of buzzsaws
against steel. Workers milling about on top of the steel. ... When I looked at
Ground Zero up close, I was stunned at how large the disaster was. I don't know
what I expected, but it was huge. I thought to myself, "How will they ever get
that out of here?" How could anybody be alive under all that weight, the crude
rusty beams that looked really sharp and violent? It looked very violent.
I thought to myself, this looks more like what I've envisioned hell to be, if
there is such a place, more than anything I've seen in my life. ... There was
death; you could smell it. And it was completely overwhelming. People were
chaotically trying to put some order into the disorder, which seemed like a
feeble attempt. But there we were, trying to make a difference, trying to find
somebody alive, starting the cleanup effort, which was overwhelming.
I was as frightened as I was intrigued. I realized that, as a minister, this
was where the rubber meets the road. I've preached about abstract principles
for six years now, since I've been ordained, which isn't a very long time in
the scheme of things. Now it's time to face the consequences of what I call at
times sin or evil. This is what it looks like up close, and it's not pretty.
[What did you do next? What was the scene? What was going on?]
A rescue worker said to me, "Hey, Father, why don't you come up with us?" The
next thing I knew I was climbing the steel, not even thinking about what I was
doing. I was being led. I arrived on top of the heap, and I could already feel
the heat under my shoes. I could see that there were fires around me. There
were rescue workers and firemen and policemen and women digging, silently,
determined to find somebody.
So I stayed with them on the heap throughout the night and into the early
morning hours. At one point, there was a group of firemen and firewomen
huddling over a large piece of steel, pulling, tugging. As I came up closer, I
could see that they were trying to work a snake-like camera down into the heap.
I asked one of the workers what they were doing, and he said, "We found a fire
helmet down there and an oxygen tank." So they continued to dig for this
particular fireman, and I helped them as much as I could.
Then there was a scream from a crane operator below who said, "Get the hell out
of there, it's unstable!" So the group that I was in, that had been working
diligently to find this one fireman for over an hour, had to move. I'll never
know what happened to that fireman. ...
The smell was terrible. It smelled like burning wires and probably human flesh.
It was noxious. It was coming up from under me and I couldn't avoid it. ...
People were throwing scraps of metal past me. I realized I had gotten myself
into a dangerous situation, which I wasn't qualified to be in, and I wasn't
prepared for it, but there I was nonetheless. And I was glad to be there. ...
[Tell me about the human remains.]
By this time, I had ash all over me. Then another rescue worker said to me,
"Father, we need you over here." The time was flying by. Hours seemed like
minutes. I went over to where the rescue worker called me, and he said, "We
need you to bless the buckets." I didn't know what he was talking about until
the first bucket was put under my nose.
As I looked into the bucket, I saw the unspeakable. I saw a forearm. It was
clear to me that the whole of humanity was represented in that one bucket,
because there were parts of various individuals together. It was much like a
crude burial service. The only thing I could do was add some semblance of
dignity to a rather undignified situation. So I made the sign of the cross over
the buckets as they came to me, holding my breath, numb, but all the same
trying to add some sense of dignity to a horrible situation. I asked one rescue
worker, "That was a body part?" And he said, like a robot, "Yes, Father," and
on he went to the next bucket. I realized then that I was in the right place.
There was an effort to handle the body parts with care, even at this point. So
the smallest little body part was given its own bucket at times. Even if only a
little piece was found, it was given its own bucket, and it was passed along
from person to person. Then it was deposited at my feet, where I made sure I
looked at it and made a sign of the cross over it and said a prayer silently. I
felt nauseated, sad, angry, confused, and completely lost. Yet I knew I was
supposed to be there. I knew that somehow this ministry I have was being forged
on the fires of that heap of Ground Zero.
So the body parts continued to be passed, and they were small. The largest
piece of human remains I saw was the size of the forearm, which didn't look
like a forearm. ...When I looked into the first bucket that was passed before
me, I looked into it and I couldn't believe what I was seeing -- flesh, bone,
and muscle covered with ash. It didn't look human, but I knew that it was,
because I'd been told that it was a human body part, or in this case, parts.
As I looked deeper into the bucket, I was convinced of a truth that I had
always paid lip service to, but now knew was undeniable and as real as it gets:
that we are all one. It doesn't matter what our race, creed, gender, or
background happens to be. We're all one. We live together; ultimately, we all
die together. ...
After I blessed the buckets, they were then passed on to particular body bags
where they were taken off. But what kept striking me was the care these big,
burly rescue workers were taking in making sure that the human remains were
given their own sense of dignity, their own special place apart from the steel
and the dirt and the grit and the ash. ...
I know enough by now -- and I knew this then -- that words could be cheap. So I
didn't go there with Christian platitudes. I knew better than that. I went
there to be a presence, to help. I hoped to show that somehow God hasn't given
up on us. I certainly saw that through those who were working alongside of me,
handling human remains without complaining, helping each other, supporting each
other, saying, "Thanks, Father, for being here. Where's your parish?" One
person said he was from Chicago. One was from San Antonio. One was from midtown
Manhattan. These were rescue workers, firemen. ...
[What does it mean to you now?]
The struggle for me from Sept. 11, from the very beginning of that disaster,
was the sense of a disconnect between the sanitary and the triumphalistic
nature of worship -- the pristine building, as beautiful as that is, and the
horror that was taking place blocks away. After so many services, sanitized
services, I realized that I couldn't talk about what was going on unless I was
a part of it, unless I had the dirt on me. I believe that we have to preach the
gospel, and if necessary, use words. I didn't want to preach about something I
hadn't experienced firsthand, because I didn't believe I had any credibility to
truly discuss the depth of what had happened unless I actually saw it. ...
The church that I serve -- the particular parish is on a major avenue in
midtown Manhattan -- is beautiful, Gothic, very clean, very gorgeous; far
removed in some ways from the dirt and the grit of life in general. I wanted to
put some flesh on what I was saying; little did I know what I'd find.
So what compelled me to leave the parish and go to Ground Zero was to truly get
a sense of what it is we proclaim in the church, what we supposedly believe as
Christians, which is that resurrection follows crucifixion, in a way that's
real and connects with real people, and has meaning, and is upfront and close
to the pain and death. But how can I proclaim resurrection if I haven't been up
close to the crucifixion? ...
[Has Sept. 11 changed your image of God, how you imagine the face of
Prior to Sept. 11, the face of God for me was one that was strong, secure,
consistent; a face that, while at times seemed distant, can more or less be
counted on to be there, who kept things in order -- the sun would come up, the
sun would go down -- who would provide, could be counted on.
After Sept. 11, the face of God was a blank slate for me. God couldn't be
counted on in the way that I thought God could be counted on. That's what I
felt as I stood on Ground Zero. God seemed absent. It was frightening, because
the attributes that I had depended upon in the past, when thinking about the
face of God, had all been stripped away. I was left with nothing but that thing
we call faith. But faith in what? I wasn't so sure.
The face of God after Sept. 11 is much more of a mystery than it ever was, a
mystery that is still unfolding. I see glimpses of this face of God when I talk
to people who have also been at Ground Zero, and who know that there was some
kind of force keeping us together, working to insure some kind of survival. But
when that face of God that I used to see [is] proclaimed [by] people who
weren't at Ground Zero, it doesn't speak to me any longer. In some ways, I
believe that on Ground Zero I grew up, and part of that growing up is truly
grasping that which can't be grasped -- the mystery of God -- a face that often
eludes us, and frustrates me. ...
[Are there two sides to religion, two faces of religion? And is one of them
to blame for what happened on Sept. 11?]
Well, religion speaks of some sense of order, which those of us who are
powerless -- and that's all of us, whether we want to admit it or not -- want
to grasp. For those who are especially powerless, religion could offer some
power. Sometimes it can be used for tremendous good, but just as much it could
be used for destruction. When we think we're right, and we grasp that limited
power through religion, we can make a place for evil, even when we think we're
right, and perhaps even doing some good. I don't know what it is about
religion, particularly the monotheistic religions, that allows for so much good
and yet so much evil. I don't know. ...
One of those things I had always said from the pulpit and in counseling
individuals is that some people can be sincerely wrong. Certainly this was the
case with those terrorists; I have no doubt about that. But what about us,
those of us who may not be quite so violent, but who claim some kind of
allegiance to a supreme being that offers revealed truth? I have been reminded
more than ever that, as a person of faith, the more I know, the more I know I
don't know. I have to admit that and live with that, and see that as a freeing
experience, and one that could perhaps keep me from committing acts of evil in
the name of religion -- by remaining open, teachable. ...
[Has your faith been challenged recently?]
Yes. If you had asked me before Sept. 11 if I had had my faith challenged, I
would have said, "Of course." When I blessed a baby that was stillborn with a
couple that had been trying to have a baby for years -- they had their first
baby, and the baby was dead when they first looked upon it, and I had to bless
it -- I would have told you that that challenged my faith. When I saw religious
leaders that I had put my respect in, and I saw that they were frail human
beings who slipped up morally and disappointed me, I would have told you, yes,
that challenged my faith.
But I had no idea how much my faith would be challenged until I was standing on
the rubble of Ground Zero on that day. I knew it was good for me, as hard as it
was to be there, and as frightened as I was about what had happened and what
could happen the next day or the day after that, with a wife and three children
in New York. But I knew that it was good for me to be there, to see what I was
seeing, to be challenged, to be stretched, and to be, in some sense, in war.
A very moving experience happened to me after I gave my sermon a few days after
being at Ground Zero. One of my colleagues came into my office and wanted to
speak with me. He is a Vietnam veteran, and he sat down with me, and he said,
"I didn't realize you were on Ground Zero itself, seeing human remains, charred
body parts, people in despair and weeping, on their knees on the rubble." And
he said, "Young man, you've been in war, and no young man like you should ever
have to be in war." So he gave me his belt buckle from Vietnam that he wore in
combat. We embraced, and we both cried, and we've had a bond ever since.
[Do you talk to God differently now? Has your relationship to God
After Sept. 11, the questions that I asked God quite specifically were, "Am I
safe? Are my children safe? I thought you were protecting us." While I was
grateful that I was alive when so many were not anymore, I wondered if perhaps
we might be next, if this entire sense of evil was just unraveling in my midst
and I would be swept up into it and be next. ... [So the questions I asked
were], "Am I safe? Is my family safe? Are any of us safe? What next? What other
surprises are we to expect? And where will you be? Because I'm not sure where
you were when this great act of evil occurred."
Even though I like to say that God was fully present and in solidarity with
those who suffer, because that's what my faith tells me to believe, "What do I
believe about you now?" is another question I had. "No, I don't think that you
did this, God, but you created a world in which this can happen, and that
upsets me." What will I do in my ministry with so few answers to so many
questions, considering that I'm not willing to offer the usual explanations for
evil and why it occurs? It won't be enough anymore to say, "Well, you know,
there are things we just can't understand." Somehow we have to get deeper than
that, and sometimes the deepest way to address that is through silence, or even
the answer, "I don't know."
[Where was God at Ground Zero?]
Where was God at Ground Zero? God was in me, because I know I was compelled to
go to Ground Zero and to manipulate my way in there past the police barricades.
It wasn't because I'm courageous or virtuous; it's because I was driven. So I
believe that God was in me in some limited way. I believe that God was in the
rescue workers who came from all over to help. God must be with us, if there's
this sense of survival within each of us that leads us to help others survive
and not just look out for ourselves. Yet how could God be in the horror of what
I saw? The stench of death, charred human remains. Human intestines, cooked and
put in a bucket for me to bless. How could God be in that? God's everywhere,
but yet, God was nowhere to be found or seen by me.
[Have you seen changes in other people? Are people more religious or more
I think that the initial outpouring of a desire to express one's grief or
questions formally, by attending church, is past. That's undeniable, for most
people. What I do see are people going back to the way they used to live, more
than I would like to admit. ...
But there are some, myself included, who have been changed when it comes to
relationships and the importance of relationships. Right after Sept. 11, a good
many individuals that I talked to were reexamining their relationships and
taking concrete steps to reconcile relationships that were not reconciled. Some
have said to me, "I was so materialistic. I'm trying to be more spiritual."
Whatever that means. Those are the positive changes. People wanting to amend
relationships, become more "spiritual."
There are other changes that I'm not pleased to see, and some of those changes
are in myself. A deepened sense of cynicism. A sense of being more alone than
before Sept. 11. Even as one such as myself, who has a wonderful wife and three
children and an extended family that I love, there's this sense of being alone,
out there, in a world that is a lot crueler than I thought at the age of 31.
There is a sense in me, and many others that I've spoken with, that we're
surviving, at least for now. We don't know what's coming. We're surviving.
We're sensitive to the changes around us, but we know we have to survive. Some
have numbed themselves, hardened themselves. To be vulnerable is very difficult
right now, and to be open to faith takes vulnerability. Some people aren't
willing to do that, because we've been burned, some literally, by religion.
[Some clergy have said that Sept. 11 presented an opportunity, and that the
opportunity has been missed.]
I do know what they're talking about when rabbis and ministers talk about a
missed opportunity. But I'm not sure what the opportunity was, because I didn't
have any specific answers that I was suddenly prepared to give people that I
didn't have before Sept. 11. ...
I walked away as one who had fewer answers than I had before. I think a lot of
people that came to places of worship were comforted by the presence of
holiness, the sacred space, the beauty of that which has always, in some
measure, provided comfort over the ages. But I think many walked away with more
questions than they had going in. In many places, something wasn't connecting,
and perhaps that's because, in some ways, words are cheap -- especially in
times of great distress where you can't really understand what one is going
through unless you've been there.
I don't believe there was a significant missed opportunity because the church,
speaking for myself, did what it always has done. I'm not sure how to seize an
opportunity, and I'm not sure if that's the right thing to do, from the
church's standpoint, at a time such as this. I'm not sure if that's the way to
look at it -- an opportunity to somehow get the message in while people are
vulnerable. I don't know if the message itself is what people were able to
receive, with the exception of some.
[How do you feel about your generation in relation to this?]
On Sept. 11, I was 30 years old, and it wasn't long before I found out that an
overwhelming majority of those that perished in the attack were about my age.
This was our first great cataclysmic catastrophe, if you will, that we have
experienced together. ... It was tragic for anyone who was lost, who died. But
speaking as a 31-year-old now, it had a particular sense of horror, because I
realized that those that died were going through life as I am going through
life -- starting out in a career, rearing a young family with hopes and dreams.
We've been sheltered, those of us in our 30s. We've had our share of things to
contend with, but we've never had a slaughter in our own neighborhood of that
magnitude. We have to grow up now.
I think what stunned many individuals in my age group was the fact that now we
all have to face down our mortality. No one gets out of here alive; some leave
sooner than others, and not willingly. It's difficult to face death and talk
about it, especially with people in my generation, because things have been so
good, so prosperous.
Now we've lost our neighbors, our friends, those we went to school with, those
we saw in church, those we drank with. They're dead. And it wasn't as if we
lost a friend in a car accident, which happens to people in my age group more
often than we'd like to think. But to lose thousands in one act of violence was
completely new to us. We had to face the fact that no one gets out of here
alive, and for some, the end is horrible. That, of course, leads us to wonder
what really matters -- not just what are we living for in this life, but what
are we dying for? That's the new question.
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