Following 9/11, Episcopal chaplains made room for sacred space
By Val Hymes, September 08, 2011
[Episcopal News Service] "I realized we had to do something. We've got to step into the vacuum, step into the breach, either lean in or run away. We are chaplains. We know how to do chaplain's work."
George Packard, then Episcopal Church bishop suffragan of chaplaincies, had gone alone to the still-smoking Ground Zero, where terrorist attacks had destroyed the Twin Towers in New York. With those words, he pushed back his grief and fear and moved to rally forces and launch what became a 100-day mission of support to those at the site and in nearby communities.
It began the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when someone entered the chapel at the Episcopal Church Center in New York to tell announce that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center.
"I happened to be leading morning prayer that morning," said the Rev. Gerald Blackburn, director of federal chaplaincies and executive officer to the bishop suffragan. "We soon realized it was not a small plane off course. After the service, we gathered around a television set and watched in numbness and shock as the second tower was struck."
Packard recalled, "We went outside to smell burning rubber and electrical-fire fumes. The wind was blowing smoke and debris. People were streaming up the avenue with their clothes covered in ash. The sirens started to wail, they closed down all the avenues. It was just chaos. We started to make an assessment of what we had to do."
Said Blackburn, "The whole city was in shock."
Earlier that morning, at the Pentagon across the Potomac River from the nation's capital, Senior Chaplain Jay Magness, now Episcopal Church bishop suffragan for the Armed Services and federal ministries, had sat down to a meeting of senior chaplains. Thirty-five minutes after the second tower was hit in New York, alarms sounded, ordering evacuation at the Pentagon.
Magness and his colleagues went outside to see billowing smoke and flames. A plane had flown into the building about two wings away. They quickly broke into teams of three and re-entered the building to help rescue survivors.
"It looked like nothing I've ever seen," he said. "I saw the absolute horror in people's eyes. Acrid smoke filled our nostrils. We tore up T-shirts for masks."
Magness worked with two other chaplains and helped carry out the injured and dying, comforted other survivors and called families for them. His own wife, Carolyn, did not hear that he was safe until hours later.
"We had absolutely no first-aid equipment," Magness said. A senior Air Force officer dragged out a medical cabinet and broke it open with a chair. With no ambulances there yet, "we were using minivans," he said. "I will never forget seeing a woman who ran out of her shoes and kept running."
'We were needed'
In New York, church center staff members, including the Rev. Jackie Means, the Rev. Melford "Bud" Holland, UMC minister David Henritzy and the Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, left to find a way to help people.
"I knew we were needed somewhere," said Means.
Some went to a hospital to comfort families waiting for survivors who never came; others went to an emergency rallying point on Manhattan's lower West Side to help counsel the shocked and grieving evacuees and workers.
"Every New Yorker of every stripe and kind came bringing blankets and water jugs on their shoulders," said Packard. "It was New Yorkers at their best, wearing both tattoos and suits.
"We didn't know the extent of anything," said Packard, "so we hunkered down to assess what we could do." He and Magness each had fought in Vietnam. They did not know if there would be another attack.
In his first trip to Ground Zero, using his military identification to get through the barriers, Packard found a "silt-like ash covering everything. Lights were on the lattice-grid, the shell of a tower about three stories tall.
"It was eerie, with smoke and steam and secondary explosions. Fire hoses snaked around all over the place. The only thing left was a hill of debris. It was awful."
Recalled Means, "It looked like World War II, with everything bombed out. Nothing is around, but the church is there." While a dozen buildings around the Twin Towers were demolished or badly damaged, she said, St. Paul's Episcopal Chapel did not have even a cracked window.
When Packard got to St. Paul's, he found the Rev. Lyndon Harris, priest-in-charge, putting water out on a table and inviting in exhausted firefighters and EMS crews. Soon the chapel became a haven and the heart of the ministry to the workers, providing food prepared by the chefs of New York's restaurants, medical treatment, pastoral counseling and the services of a podiatrist and a chiropractor.
"This is what the church is about," said Means. "One woman's ministry was to bring fresh flowers to the chapel every day."
Added Packard, "Lyndon Harris is the real hero of this story. He brought things together. It was a unique luminary, a unique moment of the church happening there at St. Paul's."
"For three or four days the Episcopal church and a Catholic priest were the only presence there," said Packard. "The Diocese of New York asked us to be the clearinghouse for chaplains at Ground Zero, so we set up a rotation of chaplains to be on site 24-7."
When they arrived at Ground Zero, Blackburn said, he and Packard found National Guardsmen, firefighters and emergency workers hungering for a blessing or a prayer. "One big old policeman wrapped his arms around me," Blackburn said.
When they took water to the workers at the debris "pile," Means said, "one said he needed a hug. I gave him one. It was the simple things that were needed."
"We helped set up a field morgue on the site," said Packard. "They would bring us remains the size of a lunch box or a toaster. We would say prayers and see that they were given proper care. It was awful."
While working at Ground Zero, he simultaneously was acting as liaison with the Pentagon and the 13 affected dioceses and trying to minister to all Episcopal military, health-care and prison chaplains. "It was pretty exhausting," he said.
He declared "100 days of Mission Support." It included satellite programs to minister to those in surrounding communities whose loved ones did not come home from work after 9/11.
"The shock effect was not only at Ground Zero," he said. "There were cars never claimed in parking lots in the suburbs. Every community had some part of the trauma."
Field teams worked with people in the churches in the tri-state area. Psychologist David Knowlton from the Diocese of New Jersey "brought his vision and expertise to that mission," Packard said.
Many of the clergy pressed into service as chaplains continued ministering day and night at Ground Zero even after the Red Cross took over that role. Families of the chaplains became involved.
"I love this city," said Brook Packard, the bishop's wife. "The people are grieving. I feel so much for them." She went to the site at 3 a.m. to offer water and comfort to the workers working under floodlights.
The Seamen's Church Institute on Water Street also became a respite site for first responders and was served by Episcopal chaplains, prompting Packard to refer to the "Episcopal bookends" of Ground Zero. Bishop Christopher Epting, one of the clergy drafted for chaplain service there, advocated for "patient and wise conversations with the Islamic community," said Packard.
Magness said 9/11 was the third mass casualty event he had dealt with in his life. As chaplain, he had worked with the families of the victims of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut and of the bomb that damaged the USS Cole in 2000.
"All three were inspired by or committed by Islamic terrorists. It began for me two years of spiritual calibration," he said. That included defending a Muslim chaplain at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo, on the island of Cuba, and pressing for a military message after 9/11 of nonretaliation against Muslims in the service, saying, "They are Americans and part of our team."
"I questioned why people who embrace the same God can do something like that," Magness said. "I gradually came to realize that we need to affirm others whose faith differs from ours. If we don't find a way to do that, we stand a chance of killing every man, woman and child on the face of this earth."
Packard said he did not know if he could have done things differently. "I do know," he said, that in giving last rites to the remains of victims over and over at Ground Zero, "I had a definite sense of God's grace.
"I knew," he said, "that we had to make room for sacred space for the holiness that was there."
-- Val Hymes is a member of the Diocese of Maryland and editor of www.PrisMinNet.org.