The Revolution Today: September 11th’s Sanctuary
How does God work today? He still moves in mysterious, even revolutionary ways.
“My first return to St. Paul’s Chapel was the day after [September 11, 2001],” Rector Lyndon Harris explained. He put on his boots and hiked down Broadway, “hoping that I could get in, hoping that the building is still standing.”
Harris had no idea what he would find. The oldest church in continuous operation on Manhattan, St. Paul’s, had been located on Church Street for more than two centuries. But because it faced the World Trade Center, Harris knew its survival was unlikely. When terrorists flew jetliners into the World Trade Center on September 11th, the towers collapsed, raining debris and dust everywhere, especially on adjacent properties. Other nearby buildings were destroyed.
“Every step of the way my heartbeat was just pounding because I fully expected everything to be demolished. When I got here, it was a very emotional moment to see this church standing, very powerful,” Harris said.
The rector wasn’t the only one who found the church’s survival a miracle. “I was looking around, I had to go to the bathroom,” related Tim O’Neill of the New York Police Department. He had been working on the recovery at the World Trade Center site. “And I saw footprints going into St. Paul’s front door,” he said of his decision to enter the chapel. O’Neill felt an eerie silence as he looked around. “Look at that, not even a window is broken in here, I can’t believe that. It’s right behind a grave yard, but it’s intact,” he said in awe.
The rubble was less than thirty feet away, yet the church looked as pristine inside as it had the previous Sunday. No broken windows, no debris. O’Neill described the scene as unbelievable. “It added a little spirituality, and a little reminder, to me at least anyway, that it [St. Paul’s] was protected. It was immediately designated a sanctuary by a higher power,” O’Neill said.
St. Paul’s miracle has its critics. A physicist, who had developed theories about how the tower’s fall created air pockets of protection in random places, shrugged off a miraculous intervention for the church. September 11, 2001, however, was not the first time the Creator of physics had turned St. Paul’s into a sanctuary of miracles.
When fire broke out after the American army evacuated New York in 1776, local residents created a bucket brigade to transport river water and put out the fire in an effort to save St. Paul’s. Every other building in the Wall Street district was left in ruins except for this brownstone chapel. The church was only ten years old at the time. God has used St. Paul’s to stand the test of time as a testimony to his miraculous power.
He still moves and provides sanctuaries.
The American Revolution Today: Dusty Bells
Dust was everywhere,”
Rev. Daniel P. Matthews proclaimed in his first sermon following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Rector of Wall Street’s Trinity Church described the plague of dust on New York as unbelievable. But he also reminded his congregation that dust had another purpose. It served as a symbol: They were not alone in their tragedy.
“Dust did not just fall in southern Manhattan. Dust fell over all the world on September 11,” Matthews stated dramatically. He reminded his congregation that people throughout the world were mourning with them. “Everybody is covered with the dust of the World Trade Center of September 11. None is without dust.”
Matthews also encouraged his audience to take comfort in the story of the bells. Through a presidential proclamation, President George W. Bush called on Americans to come together in a day of prayer and remembrance on September 14, 2001. The president’s proclamation encouraged people to pray and churches to ring their bells at noon.
Dr. Matthews called one of the church’s engineers and asked if they could ring the bells of St. Paul’s Chapel, which is a part of Trinity’s parish and next to the site of the World Trade Center.
“No,” was his reply. They couldn’t do it. The church had no electricity, and the bells were electric. By this time New York’s governing authorities had also restricted access to the entire Wall Street district.
An hour later the engineer called Matthews back. They had done it. Mike and Jim, the two engineers, and Lyndon Harris, the chapel’s rector had risked their lives by carefully climbing St. Paul’s dark wooden bell tower to ring the bells at noon.
“While Jim held a flashlight, Mike found a steel pipe and ‘whacked’ the bell 12 times. Rescuers at Ground Zero removed their hats and stood in silence,” the chapel’s website later reported.
The bells gave firefighters, police officers, and other rescue workers on the scene a chance to attend “church.”
“The workers stood in silence as if to say,
‘The Lord God reigns, even in this hell,’”
related Daniel Matthews in his sermon.
“Sometimes in the midst of the most horrible tragedies,
We see with eyes with which we haven’t seen before,
At times like this a bell becomes more than just a bell;
It becomes a sacrament.”
And in that sermon:
Dust became a symbol of comfort
Bells bore the people’s atonement
God still reigned.
“Let him bury his face in the dust—there may yet be hope…Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love” (Lamentations 3:29, 32)
Let us pray,
Father, thank you for your compassion in grief, for the encouragement of bells buried in dust that lead hearts to look to heaven evermore.
Battlefields and Blessings: Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. Jane Hampton Cook, God and Country Press. 2007