The Old Church Pew….

“You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word.”
~Psalm 119:14

Directly across the street from Ground Zero in New York City is St. Paul’s church.  An Episcopal church that was built in 1764 and is the oldest surviving church in Manhattan.

On September 11, 2001, as the towers fell, the church stood its ground.  Not a single pane of glass in the sanctuary was broken.  Not a single headstone in the cemetery was damaged.  Only one tree fell; a giant sycamore almost a century old.

In the days and then months that followed, St. Paul’s served as a relief site for emergency workers.  It stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week for eight months, providing food and rest and a sanctuary for moments of silence and prayer for hundreds of firefighters, police officers, volunteers and other rescue workers.

In 2006, I visited New York City with a group of girlfriends.  We hadn’t specifically planned to visit the site where the Twin Towers had once stood.  It had been less than five years since the attack.  The New York City Medical Examiners office had only recently ceased their efforts to identify remains.  And we didn’t want to be tourists there.

But one afternoon, as we were walking around the city near Battery Park, we ended up close to the site.  Though, it really couldn’t be missed.  The size of the devastation was staggering.

Then, we saw St. Paul’s church, perfectly intact, stoic like, defiant, amidst so much destruction.

It was clear the church was open and so my friends and I made our way toward it.  We walked around the grounds for a while and then we entered the chapel.  Inside were dozens of displays and memorials honoring those lost in the attacks.

After walking the perimeter of the church, we took a seat in one of the pews and a woman approached.

“See all these markings?” she asked, pointing to the large scrapes that rang the length of each pew.  “Those were caused by the boots and belts worn by emergency personnel who came in to rest.”

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I ran my hand along the markings and was overwhelmed by the weight of what those pews had held.  They had served as a place for so many tired bodies to rest and refuel….and for tired souls to pray and hope and cry and rage.

Sitting in St. Paul’s that day, I thought about the hundreds of people from New York and all over the country and all over the world, even, who had come into the chapel in the wake of September 11.  Many religions and faiths were represented in that church, as well as non-believers.   And they sat alongside one another, united in grief and fear and disbelief and anger and hope and love.

It always seems that in the immediate wake of a tragedy, we see the best of humankind.  Strangers helping one another, consoling one another, praying together, making sacrifices for each other and so on and so on.  And we do it regardless of race, religion, gender, or political affiliation.

I think that when it matters most, when we are called, really called to be good humans, we answer the call.  We rush towards those places and people who need us to help in whatever way we can.  Some rush directly to the front lines to offer their skills, others rush to places of worship, or into groups/organizations that are lending their support from afar.  We rush to family and friends.  We organize and we pray together and we just be together and we embrace one another, strangers and family and friends alike.

I was in college on September 11,2001 and later that afternoon, as we students wandered through the day in a dazed fog, I remember being in the dining hall that was unusually quiet as we picked at our food, going through the motions.  Then, another student whose name I didn’t know and still don’t know, stood up and said,“Would anyone like to pray with me?  

And we did.  The dining hall full of students, believers and non, stood and we held hands in a large circle.  He led a very short prayer, followed by silence, in which we prayed across our own denominations and faiths and beliefs.  I wasn’t sure if I felt God in that circle, but I certainly felt a steadying and comforting energy as I shared that intimate moment with people who were otherwise just passerby’s in my life.

A year or so ago, I purchased an old church pew from a large, beautiful church in a small rural town in Maine.  The church had been sold and was being renovated into a mixed use space for the community.  I wandered the aisles of the church inspecting the pews, all of which were still affixed to the sanctuary floor, until I found the one that spoke to me.  Then, I brought it home.

The story about those pews in St. Paul’s church had stayed with me and I loved the idea of bringing something into my home that I think represents a part of what makes us great; the coming together for a shared purpose or passion.

For the last several weeks, we’ve been again watching as New York City, the current epicenter of the pandemic in the US, suffers.  This time though, we’ve been watching from our own communities that are also under siege and we can’t rush anywhere.  Not to one another, or to the places that feel familiar and safe.  We can’t congregate to hold one another up and together.

The comforting energy created when we are able to be together, that urge to connect with touch (a hug, a pat on the back, a handshake, a handhold) is palpable.  Our impulse to rush is as innate as breathing and in our most desperate moments we are, for each other, like those pews in St. Paul’s chapel; holding one another up, offering one another a place to rest.  Together, we help carry the weight of our collective grief and anger and we share our hope and joy.

This experience has left many, myself included, feeling disconnected and alone, even in homes where we aren’t technically alone.  I’m fortunate to be isolated with my husband and our son, for which, I am incredibly grateful.  But still, I miss the casual connections that tether us to community and the broader experience of being a human.  Right now, it feels as though my small family and I are an island of our own.  It feels tenuous, fragile.

In what was normal life, I am as introverted as a person can possibly be, but I have come to realize, in all this, how deeply connected to people I actually am.  How simple, natural, day to day interactions with strangers and friends and acquaintances and neighbors…. interactions I was never even fully cognizant were happening….have always been tiny little strings connecting me to an enormous community.  I’ve come to understand that although I have often said, I enjoy being alone, I need alone time….I have rarely been truly alone.

Of course, true to our nature, we are finding new and beautiful ways in all this to rush to one another, to hold one another up and together.  However, I don’t think anything can replace what happens when we are able to literally close the distance between us.

I hope that when this is over, we have a greater appreciation for one another in every way.  I hope we are softer and gentler and more patient.  I hope the slowing down of life gives us a fresh perspective about what it means to be alive and a part of something far greater than just ourselves.

I think it would be a shame if we simply fell right back into the exact same lives we lived before we were given this opportunity to stop and reflect.  Yes, opportunity.

Because I do think there is room, in all this madness, to consider that it includes a gift or two….

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