Today on this anniversary of one of the saddest days in world history, and on the morning after President Barack Obama gave a speech filled with hope for peace instead of more fighting, I want to quote a clergyman named Frank Tracy Griswold. Back in 2001, Griswold was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US. This essay of his (which he wrote a few days after the terrorist attacks) is a personal account of how he spent the days that followed those attacks, and it is a story of hope in the face of despair. This is what he wrote:
On Friday, September 14, the day of national mourning, I knew my place was here in New York with those who were courageously struggling with the aftermath of the hideous events of the previous Tuesday. A police van picked me up at the Church Center and transported me through checkpoints to the Seaman's Church Institute within the restricted area where police, firefighters, National Guard, rescue workers and Con Edison technicians were being cared for with food, fresh changes of clothing, and words of thanks and encouragement from tireless volunteers.
In the midst of the chaos I was asked to celebrate the Eucharist. It was Holy Cross Day, and how appropriate and right it was that our mourning and grief be rooted and grounded in the mystery of the cross. St. Paul speaks of sharing the sufferings of Christ. I thought that every act of violence, and all that it produces, is an instance of Christ's own suffering with and on behalf of those he came to reconcile to one another through the cross.
In the Gospel reading for the day, we hear Jesus proclaim: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself." The cross is Jesus' facing into all the subtle and obvious forces of evil the divide the human family, drawing us all to himself in order that we might be transformed and live in new patterns of relationship: patterns which are grounded in the awareness that - at the heart of all differences of language, race, culture and ways of believing and naming God - we are profoundly one in the mind and heart of our Creator. That this terrible act of terrorism has provoked blind and indiscriminate blame directed against our Moslem and Arab neighbors is to allow the evil we are suffering to catch us up in its ongoing destructive force, and make us its victim in yet another way.
After the Eucharist, Phoebe and I were taken through more checkpoints to "Ground Zero." This close to the impact, gray ash lay everywhere and coated the silent and abandoned buildings, among them St. Paul's Chapel where George Washington worshiped. Outside the church the American and Episcopal Church flags, stained and torn, fluttered at half-mast. An ancient tree had been uprooted and its branches rested on the gravestones. The building was intact, but the churchyard was thick with ash and debris and thousands of bits of paper. The iron gate was ajar. I pushed it open and climbed the littered and ash covered steps to the open door of the church. In an eerie way, everything seemed to be in order, except for the covering of dust. I found myself in tears. Here, at the heart of all the chaos and destruction was a place of solace and prayer.
The sacristy door stood open. I went in and found a piece of paper and a pen and wrote "I have been here and you have my prayers and my love. Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop." I turned to leave and just then the priest arrived. "I'm here and the church is open," he said. What more could one ask for at a time like this than the ministry of presence.
As we left, I looked up at the crucifix above the altar and had the sense that the extended arms could receive and embrace all the madness and hatred and destruction and suffering that lay close by and in all the places in our fragile world where violence and death and innocent suffering are a daily reality. Somehow this terrible event has joined us in solidarity with the suffering of the world.
That evening I took part in a service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. At the end of the service, the congregation with lighted candles in hand followed us out onto the cathedral steps where people, instead of dispersing into the evening, drew close to one another, still holding on to their candles. Passersby joined them, some stopping to buy candles in nearby shops.
Spontaneous singing began…"We shall overcome…." I thought of the overwhelming generosity of spirit that had flowed through the day. I thought of the selfless volunteers and their eagerness to be useful; the many workers and their gratitude; the congregation bound together in mutual support. I was seeing evil overcome by good which is the only way in which our world can be healed. I was also seeing our church in action and prayer and hospitality mediate the real presence of Christ.
How grateful I am for our Episcopal household and for its clear witness at this time. The days ahead will be difficult and demanding for us all, and I pray that we will be able to live them with the courage and strength that are ours in the risen Christ.
-The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA