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Ministry on Sacred Ground: People of Faith Respond to September 11, 2001

The Rev. Jan Carlsson-Bull is Assistant Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City. But at night, she has been called to Every Person's work, as she ministers to those who labor at Ground Zero, the ruins of the World Trade Center. Her flock are the firefighters, emergency workers, steelworkers, police, municipal emergency workers who toil around the clock in the rubble.

She writes, "I had walked up to one of many firemen the other night, put my hand on his shoulder [and said]: "How ya doing? It must be tough to be here day after day." "Yeah," he said, "it is." And then, "Reverend, please pray for my cousin, Richard Allen. He was a fireman too; he's in there." She continues, "It's ground that has been defiled and ground that is sacred space. It's testament to humanity at the apex of our possibility for evil and humanity at the apex of our possibility for good."

Here are the reflections of the Rev. Jan Carlsson-Bull on doing the work that continues, day after day, night after night, without hope of recovering anyone still alive from the carnage, but still filled with hope of untangling the wreckage and bringing those who died to their final rest.

September 30, 2001

Chris, Kevin, Maria, Howard, Josh, Jim, Bob, Shayna, Rosemary, Preston, Katrina, Paulo, Craig, Pela, Richard. I could go on with these names. Each gives rise to yet another story in the surreal montage of this horror. Some are among the lost, the dead-Josh Piver, a 24-year-old trader for Cantor Fitzgerald; he lived upstairs from my daughter, Sarah, in Park Slope. They listened to Beatles music and shared an occasional beer with no inkling…no inkling.

Then there's Richard Allen. I had walked up to one of many firemen at Ground Zero the other night, put my hand on his shoulder: "How ya doing? It must be tough to be here day after day." "Yeah," he said, "it is." And then, "Reverend, please pray for my cousin, Richard Allen. He was a fireman too; he's in there."

I learned so much from Bob Ossner, a tall strawberry-blond fire chaplain from Chicago, a rescue diver, a mortician, and a minister who unabashedly describes himself as fundamentalist Protestant. Bob was down at Ground Zero for well over a week.. His full smile and his big bearhugs cut through any stereotypes I might have brought to our meeting. "Anything that's found that says a life was here…anything," he says," is a blessing. It's closure for one more family." And we pray around that discovery, in an arms-over-shoulders huddle, we pray.

It's ground that has been defiled and ground that is sacred space. It's testament to humanity at the apex of our possibility for evil and humanity at the apex of our possibility for good. Those names that I named include the firemen I met, the policemen, the crane operators, the asbestos technicians, the structural engineers, the sanitation workers and FBI agents and yes, the chaplains-colleagues from across the park and across the country. All are there because it's sacred space now, and resurrection is the order of the day.

Walking back toward St. Paul's Chapel a few hours after sunrise, I spotted a crew of sanitation workers. I walked up to them and thanked them for the work they were doing. "It really feels good to hear that," they said. One fellow looked at me with a tired smile. "Clean souls rest easy, Reverend. Clean souls rest easy."

How to respond as a person and a nation? There's anger, deep anger. There's a natural and understandable drive to retaliate, to bomb them all to hell whoever the "them" is, and if innocent people die too, well so be it. The anger is beyond real. I struggle with it--how not to wreak havoc on a people already decimated by wrenching oppression. A few mornings ago, my husband Dan and I were talking about this, about our struggle with anger and what to do with it, how to route out the terrorist network, even it's possible to do so. Suddenly a passage from the New Testament flashed into my memory. It's Jesus' charge to his disciples as reported in the Book of Matthew. He names them one by one and then says to them: "I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and harmless as doves."

Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. I recoil in horror and grief at what has happened here in New York City, for the thousands who have perished, for the many more thousands whose lives are rent asunder by personal loss and a bleak economic outlook-many of you included. I recoil in horror and grief at what happened in Washington, DC, and in the countryside of Pennsylvania.

On Saturdays Dan teaches karate to children. Last week, one of the youngsters, an eight-year-old boy whom I will call Jonathan, was acting out, annoying other youngsters, not paying attention. etc. Dan went over to him and bent down: "What's going on, Jonathan?" The reply: "I'm tired and bored." Dan tested: "Too much TV last night?" Jonathan's reply: "Nope." Dan persisted: "What is it then, Jonathan." "I'm afraid," said the child. "I'm afraid that bad people will fly a plane into my house." Dan was jolted, but he spoke deliberately and from the heart in response, "Jonathan, I personally guarantee you that no bad people will fly a plane into your house."

In the wastes of Afghanistan, in the shadow of the Taliban, there's an eight-year-old Jonathan. What kind of promise can we make to this child?

How do we own that spectrum linking the good and evil of our own humanity? How do we stare into the funeral pyre that is the rubble of Ground Zero, avoid acts that could recycle this horror, while forging internationally supported anti-terrorist strategy? We grieve, we reel, we fume, and we consider.

May the God that embraces us all be with us.
May the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove
course through our souls and infuse our public policy.
May we live the balance of our own precious days
with mindfulness, compassion, and gratitude for each sunrise.
May we open wide the doors of our hearts,
the hearts of our minds,
and the windows of this world
to that great and precious gift of loving and being loved.
And may Richard Allen and all who are with him rest in peace.
Amen.

For more information contact pw_specialist @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, August 2, 2012.

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