Fame and faith in 'the 9/11 chapel'

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The Rev. Stuart Hoke, in his ornate green vestments, looks out of place at St. Paul's Chapel. His noonday Eucharist prayers seem a mere curiosity here. The room, after all, has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, given over to the aftermath of 9/11. But the priest carries on, preaching to a distracted and ever-shifting congregation – a tank-topped, flip-flopped river of strangers that slowly makes its way around the perimeter of the sanctuary.

Every moment or two, someone will take a pew, sit down, or kneel, then stand up mid-sermon and leave. They have come, after all, to honor the dead and to see the chapel's artifacts – the famous banners, the photos, the toys, the badges, notes, flags, and plastic roses – what parishioner J. Chester Johnson describes in a poem as the "litter of the heart" left behind five years ago.

By an open door next to the altar, a bright red double-decker tour bus idles.

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St. Paul's Chapel became known worldwide for its role as a physical and spiritual mender of the exhausted relief workers from the smoldering "pit" of ground zero across the street. If not for the side altar covered with pictures of the many, many young and handsome dead, its exhibit would seem to chronicle triumph. For while the world counted lives lost, the chapel counted meals served, supplies donated, volunteer efforts brought during an eight-month, round-the-clock recovery period. Finally, St. Paul's emerged as a symbol of the incalculable goodness spawned by the horrific events of 9/11.

From the inside, the response was peaceful – a matter of lightly "steering," says Diane Reiners, who coordinated the 14,000, mostly autonomous, volunteers. Management, when it happened, was a matter of "a little more of this, a little less of that."

Its recovery role complete, when it was reopened to the public on Sept. 11, 2002, St. Paul's found itself thrust into another singular ministry – as a de facto memorial for visitors to ground zero, where officials have yet to designate a formal shrine. In a typical month, 35,000 come to the chapel, wiping eyes, blowing noses, studying intently the artifacts on display. "Did you see? That was Mike's picture right by the door," a woman says to her companion.

Outside, the ancient graveyard offers a shady respite from the bright void across the street, but the well-worn interior has become a holy place for pilgrims of all creeds. "To us, this is a house of God," says Fred Leznek, of suburban Chicago, who is Jewish. Mr. Leznek, clearly moved, visited with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. The fact that the chapel suffered not so much as a broken window even as the towers fell just yards away, is a "miracle unto itself," he says. "It means that God's presence was here."

The pews at St. Paul's were thoroughly gouged and chipped by the rescue workers who slept in them. They now harbor a second wave of witnesses to ground zero – who, slinging cameras, water bottles, and backpacks – makes its own mark on the chapel's history. Says Dr. Hoke, "Part of our ethos as Episcopalians is this broad hospitality. The door is open: Use the thing."

St. Paul's is – perhaps secondarily, now – Episcopal. Opened in 1766 at Broadway and Fulton Streets as part of the vast Trinity Church Wall Street parish, it is the oldest public building in Manhattan in continuous use. Before 9/11, Trinity's long-neglected daughter chapel saw 100 visitors weekly at best. A single Sunday service drew 18 or 20, and a few history buffs stopped by to look at George Washington's pew. There was no full-time staff.

Ironically, in early 2001, Trinity – a wealthy, powerful, elegantly high church in its worship style – had sought to make better use of St. Paul's in hopes of reaching a younger base. They experimented, with little success, with various alternative worship forms. Reincarnated, the chapel now hosts 60 or so for its daily prayer for peace, and about 120 at the two services on Sunday. Two of the Trinity Church staff of 200 take care of St. Paul's full time, and the mother church helps underwrite the cost of chapel operations, which, despite its little gift stand and its collection boxes, run at a loss.

Everyone from the local Masonic lodge to the top NFL draft picks has visited, says Alessandra Pena, program administrator. Choirs that sing here consider it more meaningful than performing at Carnegie Hall, she says. St. Paul's has also joined the Community of the Cross of Nails, a global ecumenical reconciliation ministry inspired by the post-World War II acts of forgiveness of German and British citizens.

And then there's the media – which have logged dozens upon dozens of interview requests in recent weeks, according to Trinity spokeswoman Donna Presnell. "Good Morning America" plans to broadcast its show from the chapel on 9/11, breaking away for the memorial service that will mark the attack on the twin towers. Whether dealing with the individual visitor, the international community, or the press, the ultimate mission of the chapel is advancing the cause of reconciliation and peace, Ms. Pena says.

Hoke, along with many at St. Paul's, was there on 9/11 when the towers came down. Like others at ground zero, he suffered greatly for a full year afterward – with acute fear of planes, nightmares, and other evidence of post-traumatic stress. It also left him with "an enormous sense of my own mortality, of the shortness and uncertainty of my life," he says. The attacks served to "ground" him, he says, and he now knows with certainty that he wants to live out his life at the parish. "I have the sense of wanting to get on with my life – to nurture relationships with people I love."

After five years, the residue of death and destruction is yielding to revitalization in those around him as the neighborhood rebuilds and recovers, he says. Ultimately, the attacks "stretched my view of how broad God is and how God works through all events and through all of creation."

Meanwhile, the visitors to his church, "his parishioners," such as they are, are "shopping for sound bites," Hoke observes good-naturedly. "They sit down for a couple of minutes, and if it gets boring they're gone.... Sometimes they'll comment on an aspect of a sermon or hymn.... At first I was unnerved by it. I wanted to say, 'Sit down and settle.' But after three or four months, I began to get more comfortable with this, and to see it as an opportunity, not a disturbance."

Where his seminary training centered on the hour-long spiritual counsel appointment, his pastoral hour now lasts maybe 30 seconds, as he is stopped on his way up the center aisle by an anonymous pilgrim who seeks to unburden himself in confession or to scare up a bus ticket. Rescue workers come in to have their badges blessed. One mother of a World Trade Center victim came in and asked the priest to bless her son's socks.

Even after a formal ground zero memorial opens, Mr. Johnson, a Trinity vestryman, says that he doubts that the Episcopal Church will try to wrestle the chapel from its recent incarnation as shrine. The juxtaposition of the good that took place here versus the destruction across the street seems too vivid. For now, at least, the congregation in search of purpose has had its purpose handed to it.

"For centuries," says Johnson, "we were incubating."

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