faith and doubt at ground zero
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INTERVIEW: Joseph Griesedieck

[Tell me about that day.]

On the morning of Sept. 11, I was in a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, having breakfast with a friend. The waitress approached us in tears and said, "I have something horrible to tell you. An airplane has just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers." Well, it seemed like a bad dream. It was hard to believe. And we figured, like most people, it was a small Cessna or something. Then as we finished up breakfast, she approached us again and said, "A second one has hit the tower," and that's when I knew that something horrible had happened.

So I quickly went outside and walked onto the street, and I could see that the city had already changed. One woman came up to me as I was standing on the corner trying to see downtown, and she said to me, "I guess you're going to be popular today." I couldn't tell if she was being cynical or reaching out for help. I'll never know. ...

As I left the restaurant and walked toward Sixth Avenue, I looked down one of the avenues, and I could see black smoke moving across the skyline. I knew that something horrible had happened -- that this really was what the waitress described, which wasn't real until I actually saw it with my own eyes. ...

So then I walked back to our parish and everyone was watching it on TV, and I watched it. ... They kept replaying the planes hitting the towers. What was eerie about it was that it was very close, and yet at the same time, it seemed like a world away. I wanted to go down there and do something. But at the same time, my duties were at the parish for all the people coming in. ...

[Describe the scene in the church.]

They came in droves. Normally in a given day, we have the usual tourists milling about inside the church. But this day, they came pouring through the doors, kneeling, weeping, some staring blank-faced at the altar. Everyone was directing their eyes at the altar, if not down on the floor. They didn't want to talk to priests, from what I could tell. They simply wanted to be in a place where they thought they could find some comfort, even some answers. They thought it was a safe place, I would think. ... A lot of people were hugging each other and weeping and asking the same question, "Why?"...

The Reverend Joseph Griesedieck is an Episcopal priest in Manhattan who volunteered at Ground Zero. Here, he talks about being compelled to go to Ground Zero, the horrors he witnessed, and why the face of God is now a bigger mystery to him. He also comments on the changes that he sees taking place in himself and others as a result of the shock of Sept. 11. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Helen Whitney in the winter of 2002.

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 television. ...

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.

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 workers.

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 God?]

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 changed?]

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 spiritual?]

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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