HDS Students and Staff Minister to Ground Zero Workers

It wasn't a typical, carefree spring-break trip. Rather than focusing on their own "r & r," five Harvard Divinity School students, one alumna, and two staff members decided to give comfort to Ground Zero site workers for two days during their March break. And this in turn provided the HDS students and staff with a first-hand experience in pastoral care that they say was unforgettable.

The HDS group, along with six students from two other Boston Theological Institute schools—Episcopal Divinity School and Boston University—covered two 12-hour volunteer shifts at St. Paul's Chapel in lower Manhattan on March 25 and 26, 2002.

St. Paul's is a historic Episcopal chapel owned by Trinity Church at Wall Street. It has been serving as an emergency drop-in center for the workers—mostly security, police and fire personnel—who, every day since the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, have been responsible for searching through the rubble and uncovering remains at the former site of the twin towers.

"The volunteers bring new energy into a really horrible, death-filled circumstance," said the Reverend Claudia Highbaugh, HDS chaplain and the organizer of the trip. "The workers are there to discover new bodies, meaning they are living in a post-terror landscape. They bring their grief to the relief center, where a community of chaplains and volunteers is there to sustain them. It is very biblical—I think of Isaiah in terms of waters and comfort."

Garth Bulmer, an Anglican priest from Canada who is a Merrill Fellow at HDS this spring, also participated in the volunteer experience. "Many of the workers have been there from the beginning, and many spend full-time hours every week doing this work," Bulmer explained. "We served them coffee and bagels and had the opportunity to speak with them. It was a very moving experience."

Bulmer was asked to celebrate the Eucharist on Monday, March 25. A Eucharistic service is held in St. Paul's every day at noontime. He recruited others in the group to do readings and Belva Brown Jordan, HDS assistant dean for student life, preached. "What's amazing is the way the Eucharist happens in the midst of the hubbub, because people continue to come in and out throughout the service," Bulmer said.

"One of the firemen who was present at the Eucharist came back later to give me a piece of marble from the mezzanine of the second tower," Bulmer added. "He handed it to me and said, 'Thank you for being here; we really appreciate the volunteers coming and offering us spiritual services.'"

Bulmer has written the fireman's name on the back of the piece of marble and says he will always remember the occasion that prompted this gift.

Another volunteer, first-year MDiv student Kendall Atterbury, also was moved by the gratitude of the workers. "I hadn't been there more than 20 minutes, I was serving coffee to the guys and women, and one man said, 'Thank you.' I thought he meant for the coffee, so I said, 'You're welcome.' And then he said, 'No, for being here.'

"I didn't know what to do with somebody who has been picking body parts out of a pit all day saying thank you to me," she said. "Those workers? Every day they find remains. For them, it's still September 11 and it's seven months later. I couldn't think of how to respond. There's so much to say and nothing to say."

Atterbury, who possesses construction skills, has volunteered in the past on a number of overseas trips helping people to rebuild homes, hospitals, and schools after natural or human-made disasters, including in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Haiti. But she says this experience was different. "On the one hand, it's not unlike the rest of the world and the suffering that happens to other people," she said. "But there is something different about two planes hitting the World Trade Center that is symbolic to the world."

And there was something else that made this trip different and more personal for Atterbury. She lost a friend who was in one of the towers on September 11. "When I come back from overseas, I have a hundred things to say, but I don't really know how to talk about this trip," she said. "I don't even know what it all means yet."

Though no others in the group had such a direct connection to loss at the site, the inability to express some of the feelings stirred up by the experience and the need for time to process them were sentiments echoed by all the participants interviewed.

Second-year MTS student Seong-Hyon Lee put it this way: "It was a visceral experience—I'm still processing all the feelings," he said. "It requires not simply interpretation but time to approach the experience, and the issues, with a careful, contemplating manner. There are no quick solutions." Seong will get some of that time to meditate this summer after he graduates from HDS. He will be spending seven weeks at a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. 

Yet among the shock and grief, there was balm to be found. Atterbury was comforted when she observed "the incredible respect that firefighters and relief workers show to victims."

"There is a ritual in place, making it a sacred space," she said. "It struck me that when my friend is found, assuming he is, I would want him treated with that respect and I am grateful to know that he will be."Jordan commented that although she finds it hard to think of what to say because "showing up to do a couple of shifts was miniscule compared to the workers, firemen, and volunteers who organize the work at the chapel," at the same time "it felt good to be there and be productive and supportive."

Also, although all the participants acknowledged that the events of September 11 and their aftermath are fodder for political and theological debate and argument, they pointed to the way this kind of hands-on pastoral care work allows you to transcend political and theological divisions. Atterbury said the main thing she takes from her overseas trips, and took from the Ground Zero experience, is that "sometimes action and practice make boundaries disappear that words would only bring out."

The students and staff commented on the way their shared experience, only two days, bonded them together into a community of mutual support. ""Even though I don't run into the people I went there with on a daily basis, when I do see them, there's a friendship there," Atterbury said. "The experience of it holds us together."

Bulmer praised the two HDS staff members, Highbaugh and Jordan, for providing an opportunity the morning following the first shift to meet with them and "reflect a bit on September 11, what we felt it meant to us, to the U.S., and to the world; that was a very helpful exercise." 

The praise was returned by the two staff members. Jordan said it was an honor to be included with the students. "For the students, who are preparing for some kind of church vocation or ministry, it was a good experience to help them shape and define the kind of ministry they will be doing in the future," she said.

Although the students focus on what they took from the experience, Highbaugh is quick to add what they brought to it, from Atterbury's overseas experiences to Bulmer's work building bridges with aboriginal peoples in Canada to help diffuse potential conflict. Highbaugh noted that, as a group, the students "brought the sensibility of HDS to this scene" in that the group included "one person from Canada, one from Africa, and one from Korea."

In fact, the group's diversity is in keeping with the worldwide community that was affected by the events of September 11 and has responded ever since. St. Paul's Chapel is filled with cards, letters and flowers sent to the workers at Ground Zero from people all over the U.S. and the world. "As I was meditating during my break hours, I went through and read some of the emotional cards and letters," Lee said. "The way they were surrounding the entire chapel wall and in the pews, you could really feel the magnitude of the impact. It is clear that people everywhere are not detached, but are really concerned and really feeling, trying to be part of a shared experience of a historical event.

That these cards, flags and banners would end up in a historic church that is the oldest building in continuous use on the island of Manhattan, a church that George Washington once attended, is fitting. Even more remarkable is that St. Paul's is still standing at all, because it stands right across the street from the World Trade Center site. "Behind it, there's a very old cemetery that is full of trees," Bulmer said. "People think that maybe the foliage and trees blocked a lot of debris from hitting the building. There's very little damage to the actual church."

St. Paul's serves as a poignant symbol for the reciprocity of care, as a church that was somehow sheltered from harm is now providing shelter to the workers who are responsible for caring for victims' remains. HDS students and staff stepped into this place of shelter and care to give of themselves, and—true to the Scriptures—much was given to them in return.