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Friday, September 11, 2015

Reflections on 9/11

A portion of the window above the high altar at Trinity Wall Street. Photo by Richard Upjohn

By David Jette, Head Verger, Trinity Wall Street, Retired

Ken Holloway asked me to offer reflections on September 11, 2001, a day I will remember as long as I live. As many of you know I retired this year after thirty years as head verger of Trinity Wall Street and witnessed at very close range the events of that tragic day for our country. It was primary day in New York on that Tuesday and consequently I arrived in Manhattan via the Staten Island Ferry just past 9:00am, a bit later than usual. Upon arrival in Lower Manhattan the crowds of commuters were all gazing at the fire spewing from the North Tower of the World Trade Center uncertain as to the cause. The answer to our question was quick in coming. Screaming over our heads at a very low altitude was the second jet aimed for the South Tower. I will never forget the sight and sound of impact. Rushing up Broadway to Trinity Church I was assured that everyone in our two church buildings and our office building were safe and unharmed. It is interesting to note that Rowan Williams, soon to be named Archbishop of Canterbury, was in Trinity’s television studio being interviewed. His experiences of that day would later appear as Writing in the Dust, a profound commentary on the events of 9/11.

Along side the Reverend Stuart Hoke, a staff priest, and Owen Burdick, our music director,we put together an impromptu prayer service with hymns for the fifty people who had assembled in the church. Never have the words of Isaac Watts', O God our Help in Ages Past, rung so true. With the collapse of the South Tower, the building shook as during an earthquake and I remember distinctly looking at the figure of Jesus in the high altar window and saying to myself, “is this the end?” From the brilliant light of early morning Lower Manhattan was plunged into midnight darkness in seconds. A few people remained in the church through the destruction of the North Tower. Despite the fright and horror of those minutes I remember Owen looking at me and Stuart and saying, “We have praised the Lord, now it’s time to get the hell out of here!” We laughed, knowing he was right and gathered our wits and quietly escorted those still in the church to a transformed Broadway. Debris everywhere was ankle deep. I finally made it home by 1:30pm that afternoon and remained glued to the news. We all were learning of the downed jet in rural Pennsylvania which was intended to hit the United States Capitol and the plane which crashed into the Pentagon. The staggering loss of life that day seemed a harbinger of untold acts to come. Somehow our geographic and military security ultimately could not protect us from wanton acts of terror and destruction.

As I think back on those days, I now cringe at some of the mindless jingoistic statements uttered by many of our political leaders. Though understandable at one level, historians will ultimately help determine the wisdom of our responses. The Church, of course is not bound by rules of engagement and foreign policy; rather we follow the urges of Scripture and the pleas of the Holy Spirit to determine how we as Christians respond to these kinds of events.

Trinity Church transformed Saint Paul’s Chapel (part of the parish, five blocks north of Trinity), as a welcome and relief center to the thousands engaged in rescue and rehabilitation for eight months following the attack. Working with the Seaman’s Church Institute and the General Theological Seminary, thousands of volunteers working in teams all day and night provided the daily necessities and pastoral needs of everyone working at the World Trade Center site. Everything from food, clothing, medical care and importantly pastoral counseling was offered free of charge. Most of the supplies were freely donated or paid for from a special budget set up by the parish to assure that all needs were met. The Chapel was literally covered inside and out with thousands of messages and banners sent from all over the world. Although not removed from the realities of our nation and immediate neighborhood, we were not prompted exclusively from notions of patriotism alone. A paraphrase of Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) sent to us by the youth of a South Carolina parish, guided our work. “Love bears up under anything and everything that comes; its hopes are fadeless under all circumstances and it endures everything.”

It is important to remember that the 2001 Vergers Guild Annual Conference, scheduled for late October 2001 in Overland Park, Kansas, went on as planned. Many conversations there shared varied but similar stories of the new security rules in force at all our airports but nearly a hundred vergers attended. I felt then and still do that it is important and vital that we gather even in the shadow of massive tragedy. Despite the wondrous and various ways we can now communicate electronically, nothing compares with face to face conversation—it is the essence of community, and much needed.

What about today? It is the custom of many parishes to host special worship events on the anniversary of 9/11 and this is meet and right in the language of the Prayer Book.  But our witness must always exceed the mere offering of our beautiful buildings as venues for religious and civic events. Our willingness to proclaim the Gospel removed from the relative safety of our church buildings must continue.  The question of how we take Jesus’ message of love and reconciliation with us at all times is the challenge and, let’s face it, as Anglican Christians we are not always comfortable with this directive! I shared a quote from Saint Teresa of Avila with the vergers in Overland Park fourteen years ago. It formed the text of a small banner at the entrance to Saint Paul’s in the months following 9/11. “For those working amidst the dust of angels, God has no body on earth but yours; yours are the only hands with which he can do his work; yours are the only feet with which he can go about the world, yours are the only eyes through which his compassion can shine forth upon a troubled world.” Teresa’s words ring true today as they did centuries ago. On this anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, pray for peace and reconciliation, be in community with each other and reach beyond the sure and comfortable and live the Gospel of Christ.

David Jette's speech to the  2001 VGEC Conference is located here. Really worth watching!
The 2001 October edition of the Vergers Voice  is also historic. - Ed.]

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Abstract: David Jette, retired head verger at Trinity Wall Street shares his experience of September 11, 2001, along with thoughts of how we can proceed with our spiritual lives in the context of peace, reconciliation and community. 

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