Responding to the 9/11 attacks, St. Paul's Chapel answered act of evil with language of love

Episcopal News Service. September 9, 2011 [090911-01]

Sharon Sheridan

In the days after the World Trade Center towers fell, heaven and hell stood side by side in lower Manhattan.

St. Paul's Chapel in New York became the focal point of a remarkable effort to support the workers at nearby Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Hundreds of volunteers from myriad vocations, religions, ages and income levels ministered to firefighters, construction workers and others working in what they called "the pit."

"For me, it became apparent very early that the pit was a symbol of suffering and death and darkness, which I began to equate with Good Friday, and St. Paul's was the symbol of new life, rebirth and hope, and therefore a symbol of Easter," said the Rev. Fred Burnham, retired director of the Trinity Institute at Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, in Manhattan, and now a member of the editorial board of ExploreFaith, a website for spiritual seekers.

Burnham and Courtney Cowart, who handled grants for spiritual formation and development at Trinity Church, were preparing to videotape meditations with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (then archbishop of Wales) and others when the terrorist attacks instead sent them running for their lives.

Directed by security to a rear stairwell after the first tower fell, Burnham recalled, "we were choking and having difficulty breathing there as badly as we had inside the building." Realizing they were likely to die, the group shared a profound moment that changed his life.

"What we discovered in that moment was how love and compassion transcend all evil," Burnham said. "It was in that moment that I realized that I was not afraid to die but also recognized that the real meaning of life was in relationships. … It was as if out of the darkness of that near-death moment came total realization both of love but also of liberation from fear."

That liberation soon led to action.

On Sept. 12, 2001, Cowart said, Williams preached: "'Yesterday, we were spoken to in one language, and we now have a choice of in what language we respond to the conversation that was initiated by the attack.' And he asked, 'What is the language of Christians?'"

At St. Paul's, the language was love. Burnham and Cowart helped organize the volunteer effort and, later, to spread the word about what happened there.

Burnham recalled firefighter John Misha telling a reporter: "'Every day, I spend most of my time on my hands and knees, digging for body parts with my bare fingers.'

"Then he went on to describe evil, darkness, suffering, death, in all the vivid language of somebody who spent that much time in the pit and who knew hell. Then, like he was rising out of hell, he stood up as straight as he could, threw out his chest, sucked in air, threw his arms into the air, and with a huge grin on his face and tears running down his cheeks, he said to her, 'And then I get to come here. ...

"'When I walk in the front door of this place, dripping with blood, they hug me, they kiss me, they bring me in and treat me like I'm a member of the family. I have never known such respect anywhere ... And I sit and cry and weep, and I am born again."

Cowart, who now is director of congregational learning at the Atlanta-based Fund for Theological Education, received a John M. Templeton Foundation grant to record the stories of Misha and others who experienced the altruistic love at St. Paul's.

Sacrificial love, she found, is like a "magnet." St. Paul's volunteers came after witnessing rescue workers' acts on Sept. 11. One sanitation worker told her, "When I got down there, I didn't care what I had to do. If they had told me to get down on the street and lick it with my tongue, I would have done it."

The volunteers, in turn, created an atmosphere of blessing and transcended barriers.

Master crane operator Joe Bradley recounted sitting on a curb in the middle of the night when young Salvation Army volunteers, sporting pink hair and bandanas, gave him water and cold towels and put dry socks on his feet. He thought about when the Yankees won the World Series.

"I'd always thought that's what New York was all about, those kind of heroes," he said. "It was the little girl with the pink hair that became my hero that night."

"I've learned a lot about good and evil," he said. "I've learned a lot about the power of prayer. I never knew anything about Episcopalians or Presbyterians or gays or people with nuts and bolts through their cheeks or those Broadway people, but now I know them all. ... They are the heroes."

Standing on St. Paul's porch and viewing the pit, one could see two choices for the world, Cowart said: "The future that leads to the destruction of the site, or the future that leads to the kind of community and life that we saw was possible at St. Paul's. ... I spend a lot of time thinking about that … and how can sharing these stories help inspire people to want to figure out ways to make our world more like St. Paul's and less like that 16-acre grave."

In the 10 years since she labored beside that smoking pit, Cowart worked as founding co-director of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana's Office of Disaster Response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and wrote a book, "An American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina the People We are Free to Be." She also served as senior adviser for Missional Leadership Programs for the Louisiana diocese, developing and teaching a course introducing young adults and seminarians to new models of relational leadership and community organizing. On Sept. 11, she will preach at services in England at Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair (which will be broadcast by the BBC) and at St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey in London. In late August, she also was preparing to be interviewed about her Ground Zero experiences for a BBC program called "Beyond Belief" that will feature four weeks of theological discussions about Christian-Muslim relations.

"St. Paul's still remains a kind of ultimate experience for me because of the really profound sense that we had collectively at the end that we had been in some kind of training and that the experience there had been a preparing for something … the emergence of some kind of faith community of the future," Cowart said. Her post-Katrina work furthered that "training," she said, "that I think is really about new paradigms of leadership and … how that applies within a church."

A new school of leadership theory is emerging – sometimes called social process activism or socially transformational leadership – that focuses on the kind of leadership that emerged at St. Paul's after 9/11, she said. "What happened there is incredible testimony to what this kind of leadership can be and do in the world."

"The neat thing about being at FTE now," she added, "is that we're developing trainings and enrichment and opportunities for leaders across all the Christian denominations to get steeped in this stuff."

"Ever since the experience on and after 9/11, I've had a very strong sense of hope about our collective spiritual evolution," she said. "But I think what I realized from New Orleans was that unless we developed a paradigm of leadership that aided all of us in our spiritual evolution … we were never going to get there."

Burnham's experiences on 9/11 and at St. Paul's also influenced his ministries in the ensuing decade. They included organizing a Trinity Institute conference on Naming Evil in 2004; leading conferences on compassion and sacred activism as a "senior fellow" of the Institute for Servant Leadership (now merged with the School for Servant Leadership) in North Carolina, where he now lives, from 2005-2010; and developing a training curriculum called "Relational Leadership" to help young adults create "the kinds of authentic communities that they know intuitively to be the future of the church."

"I'm still pursuing all of the revelations that I had as a result of 9/11," he said.