The Little Chapel That Stood
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman’s like a teabag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.” While I completely agree with the specificity of this statement, I think it has greater scope. These last two weeks, we’ve been afforded images of the mettle of which people are made of when faced with a crisis. I refer to none other than the images we’ve seen pouring out of Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The people of Texas have certainly been thrown in the proverbial hot water, and it is heartening to see how the rest of the nation has responded to their plight. Truly, amidst all the destruction and devastation, we have seen true heroism, whether it’s locals floating from house to house in dinghies and inner-tubes to help rescue their neighbors, friends and strangers, or people compelled to drive or fly into the Houston area to volunteer their help wherever they are needed. In a world that too often gives us images of horror, it’s been encouraging to see such compassion between people.
This sort of compassion puts me in remembrance of another time when my nation was rocked by tragedy. I think it’s fair to say that on September 11th, 2001, America was faced with devastation and loss on a level theretofore unseen. Attacked on her own soil, America lost over 3,000 innocents. She also lost a measure of her innocence, too, as the world was forever changed. Yet, in the days, weeks, and months that followed, when America was dipped in hot water, her true strength was seen.
I’m a relocated New Yorker. Having lived in the Big Apple during this time, I remember the unearthly hush that fell over the city when the Twin Towers imploded. With my house located between La Guardia Airport and JFK Airport, I was accustomed to the sound of airplanes flying overhead; however, on that day, all air traffic was suspended and the skies overhead were eerily silent. My home was located on a side street adjacent to Jamaica Hospital in Queens. From my vantage, I witnessed first hand the helplessness of so many medical professionals who lined up outside the hospital, smoking cigarette after cigarette, hoping and waiting to help any survivors that might be found in the rubble. Wherever you went in those days immediately following 9/11, people were aware of each other, looking to help one another, whether or not you were directly impacted by the tragedy. The entire nation grieved with New York. In our grief, we found unity. In our unity, we found strength. Volunteers from across the country hurried to offer relief for those overworked and overwrought first responders that labored ceaselessly in the hopes of finding survivors and lending aid wherever they could.
Now the Freedom Tower ascends into the New York skyline, a marvel of gleaming mirrors and modern architecture which pays homage to the memory of Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center Twin Towers and those lost in her depths. But there is also a smaller, less conspicuous memorial that pays tribute specifically to the men and women who gave of their time and effort selflessly: St. Paul’s Chapel.
Located at Broadway and Fulton Street, St. Paul’s Chapel was established in 1766 as an outreach chapel. It afforded people in the Trinity Parish the opportunity to worship in ease rather than traverse the unpaved streets south to Trinity Church. After the Great Fire of 1776 destroyed the first Trinity Church, St. Paul’s was both outreach chapel and full church for the Trinity Parish. George Washington even attended services there, most notably traveling from Federal Hall to St. Paul’s immediately following his inaugural swearing in.
On September 11th, when heavy smoke engulfed the city of New York and heaping mountains of debris stood in the place of the World Trade Center, St. Paul’s Chapel remained standing. Even though it was directly across the street from the Twin Towers, the chapel sustained absolutely no damage- only a broken pane of glass- when the towers fell. In the days following the attacks, the press and the people alike called St. Paul’s "the little chapel that stood". And, because it did stand, once again, St. Paul’s was called on to fulfill the purpose for which it was built at the very beginning: outreach. During the immediate recovery effort, and for nine months afterward, St. Paul’s acted as a primary relief ministry. While emergency workers labored round the clock, sifting through the carnage, St. Paul’s Chapel worked right alongside, providing meals and shelter and places of rest for those men and women.
When visiting St. Paul’s Chapel some years back, I was moved to tears by the mementos displayed in the inner vestibule. Hanging from the balcony rails were hand written messages of encouragement from all over the country. America had rallied in the spirit of compassion and brotherly love and those banners and messages were the proof of it.
The only destruction the chapel suffered was that wrought by the emergency workers themselves. In the small hours of the morning, when fire fighters and police officers needed a place to sleep, St. Paul’s kept their doors open, allowing these workers to stretch out on the wooden pews and find a few hours rest before returning to the pit. Due to the cumbersome gear and heavy boots they wore, indelible gouges and scars marked the pews, silent witness to the indefatigable spirit of those who gave so much of their time to the rescue, clean-up, and rebuilding of New York City.
The pews have been removed, save for one left in commemoration. Countless testimonies of resilience and sacrifice are chiseled into that single, scarred pew. It’s so easy to remember all the loss, all the pain, all the destruction and terror, but even in the middle of all the horror, there is compassion, hardiness, and buoyancy in the human spirit.
In retrospect, it seems that this little building, which stood amidst the chaos, acted as an emblem of hope for a nation. Just as the chapel had stood time and time again, whether through the Great Fire of 1776 or the horror of 9/11, the people of New York City, and subsequently America, would remain standing, too. St. Paul’s Chapel echoes those words of Dickens, that while we might suffer through the worst of times, if we endeavor to look closely, we will also witnesses the best of times. May we always hold fast to this truth, even in the bleakest moments, when loss is seen so clearly, and where destruction seemingly knows no bounds. One flicker of light has immeasurable strength, for one flicker can dispel a host of darkness. Yet, we can never know the strength of the light within us until it is tested in darkness. We are like that little teabag waiting to test our true strength; I posit, having seen the American spirit in the wake of 9/11 and seeing that echoed in Texas today, we are stronger than we think and we will be like that little chapel. We will stand.