stpauls-9-11“Whatever happens to me in life, I must believe that somewhere, in the mess or madness of it all, there is a sacred potential–a possibility for wondrous redemption in the embracing of all that is.” ~Edwina Gateley

“Compassion is the wish for another being to be free from suffering.” ~The Dalai Lama

St. Paul’s (Episcopal) Chapel in New York City sat in the shadow of the World Trade Center complex.   Dwarfed by the dozens of skyscrapers surrounding it in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district, it was the most unlikely of buildings to remain intact and standing when the towers and other buildings nearby collapsed on September 11, 2001.

But on the night of September 10, 2001, St. Paul’s windows were open. It was those open windows that helped to save the structure when the other buildings fell.

St. Paul’s, built in 1766, is the oldest standing church in the city and the place where George Washington came to pray after his inauguration as the first President of the United States. Several other U.S. presidents have also worshipped there.   Not content to rest on its illustrious history, as a congregation, it made a decision to open its doors to people who were experiencing homelessness. Night after night, the church gave shelter to those who needed a safe, clean place to sleep. When we toured the beautiful sanctuary, a guide told us this story:

It was very warm on September 10, 2001. The chapel’s windows were open to allow fresh, cooler night air to circulate through the building, making the stay more comfortable for the overnight guests. On the morning of September 11, those windows were still open when the planes hit the towers and the buildings crashed violently, horrifically to the ground.

Immediately, St. Paul’s and the small centuries-old cemetery around it were covered in dense smoke, smoldering ashes and unimaginable debris. Yet the church remained standing.

It was those open windows that helped, in part, to save it.

The open windows allowed the intense and deafening sound waves from the collapsing towers to pass through the church sanctuary, sparing it from destruction.   Had they been closed, the resulting pressure from the blast should have knocked the old building over, destroying the historic place of worship and killing everyone inside.

In this lies a cautionary message for all of us, particularly those of us in the church.

St. Paul’s decided not to be just a museum, a historic place, with quaint colonial architecture, that played an important role in the birth of America. It decided not to rest on its laurels. It decided to be a living, breathing, vibrant church, a manifestation of the call to serve from Jesus Christ.

It was that decision, that compassion –- to open its doors to people who had no safe place to lay their heads at night, to open its windows to provide them with fresh air, to open their hearts to those who were hurting, alone and afraid -– that helped to save many people and the building from an awful, deadly fate.

Simply doing good things does not necessarily save us from destruction. As one of St. Paul’s associates, The Reverend Lyndon Harris, wrote after the attacks:

It was not because we were holier than anyone who died across the street; it was because we now had a big job to do.

In the days and months following the attacks on New York, thousands of first responders, police officers, firefighters, medical personnel and so many other caring, compassionate people came to the site of the gaping wound in the city’s soul to begin to bind it up. When they did, St. Paul’s opened its doors, windows and hearts to them and thousands upon thousands of volunteers were welcomed into its sanctuary for a safe place to rest, to find respite and to savor a few precious moments of relief from the unrelenting restoration efforts. Indeed, it was a big job to do.

When we visited that site together several years after the attacks, Michael had already been there a few times before, with his wife and parents, his brother and his family, with his church youth group and a few other friends. Tom hadn’t been ready to visit to the site before that day. Growing up across the Hudson River in New Jersey, he knew many families in his community who had lost members on September 11. He had eaten lunch with a friend on the plaza outside the towers just one week before their fall. It had been too raw, too real, to return. But on this day together, he was ready.

The smoke, ashes and debris were gone. The buildings remaining in the area were in the process of being restored. The new skyscraper replacing the twin towers was under construction and already dozens of stories tall. This place of death and profound violence was once again vibrant and growing ever healthier. We toured the new museum opened to chronicle the events of September 11 and its aftermath. We stepped inside the sacred walls of St. Paul’s to hear its story of those fateful days.

We were deeply moved.

Today, there is something we know, deeply, profoundly –- when people are moved by compassion to open the windows of their hearts to show love and grace to those who are lonely, defeated, heartbroken, rudderless and in pain, others’ lives will change.   When we take notice of and reach out to those who need hope and care we begin to affect the movement of a spirit of healing and of peace. When we are intentional about using our faith as an instrument of soothing, redemptive power, people’s souls start to transform. Instead of dying in despair and defeat they are massaged into reviving with joy and hope.

It is that revival that is the sacred hope for all humankind.

Over the last few years we have developed a meaningful correspondence with a gracious man living in the Muslim world. Incredibly, he reached out separately through email to both of us, months apart. He had read stories that each of us had written for different Chicken Soup for the Soul books. He had no idea that we knew each other or that we were partners in a non-profit. But he wrote to tell both of us that our stories were meaningful to him. Born in Sudan, he currently lives and works in Saudi Arabia.

When we reached back to him, separately at first, until we realized that we were corresponding to the same person, he shared with us some details about his life – he had a wife and was the father of a young daughter. One day, this message came in:

On January 4th my father was born to another world. He was taken to Heaven. Deep sadness and emotional distress penetrated my heart. I experienced an unbearable pain in my soul. I spent 45 days with them in Sudan during the pilgrimage season when he was sick. One month after coming back from Sudan, he passed away. Thankfully, I was given another 15 days vacation to go back to Sudan to console my mother, brothers, and sisters. Even though the family home was full of people, it was empty and very small in my eyes with my father’s absence. I wished I was only 2 years old when he died. At least, I would not have known the beauty of life or the bitterness of death … Please pray for his soul peace and rest.

We felt deeply his sadness, as he so eloquently wrote to us. We expressed our empathy. We promised to pray as he asked. We kept in touch. He mentioned his father in many of the subsequent messages. His acute pain and sorrow lingered.

Months later, this welcome message arrived:

We are all well. My wife gave birth to another beautiful girl 2 months ago and we named her Limar, which, in Arabic, means “the sparkle of gold”. She was born with a small congenital hole on her back. The doctor removed the hole or rather covered it through a minor surgical operation. She still suffers the consequences of the surgery due to her fragile body and we have to change her sutures every day. Please pray for her health. I am afraid that she would be paralyzed or something like that. 

We responded with our congratulations, so happy for this good news that filled his life. We knew he needed that good news. We also prayed for little Limar and expressed our empathy as fathers as he and his wife cared for her fragile body.

We corresponded throughout the next months. He’d update us and would inquire about our children, especially. He would often write around the time of our holidays. Greetings and best wishes would come not just for Christmas and Thanksgiving, but also for Valentine’s Day, St, Patrick’s Day and the Fourth of July. He even wrote on the anniversary of September 11:

Let us pray for peace and for the victims of September 11 attacks 13 years ago … It was a horrible day … My heart ached for those who died under the ruble, for those who threw themselves off the high towers and for those who lost their lives while feverishly trying to rescue others.

Then, another message filled with pain:

… my little daughter passed away last Thursday. Deep sadness penetrated my heart and I am experiencing an unbearable pain in my soul now. Please help me embrace pain and burn it as fuel for the long journey of my healing.

… my sadness will no doubt fly on the wings of time. Thanks for your kindness.

I am trying to fill my empty heart with gratitude for those who are still in my life.

It broke our hearts. We immediately wrote back, expressing our profound sorrow for him and his family.

He responded:

Would you be willing to talk with me on the phone?

We worked out the time differences and agreed on an hour for all of us to talk. The conversation was brief. He thanked us for calling, for being supportive of him. We told him how very sorry we were for little Limar’s passing. He began to cry and couldn’t talk. The phone call ended abruptly. His grief was too acute for him to continue.

We sat silently for a few moments, reflecting on the emotion on the call. We simply didn’t know what to say after he had hung up.

The intensity of his plaintive grief and his many messages to us evoked feelings that we will never soon forget. A father’s deep, profound love, his anguished cries of suffering, bore directly into our hearts. When you lose a beloved father, when you lose a treasured child, it doesn’t matter where you live or what your religious background is. The loss hurts so much the same. His cries and his words were the same words that any loving son and any devoted father would express. Time zones, cultures and faiths don’t separate us matter when we are in deepest grief and pain. For the three of us to be able to transcend our different environments is a tremendous privilege. To be resting upon common human ground, as children of God, is a gift of supreme sacredness.

It is also how compassion moves us to be. Compassion is the living embodiment of what we are all called to be for one another – an open heart to those who feel rootless and need a home, an outstretched hand to those who are lonely and lost, a source of acceptance to those who are seized by overwhelming demons and fears, a common place of safety and comfort for those who are deep in torment and affliction.

We are all in this life together. We are a community, people in a common quest for joy, contentment and peace. None of us can survive alone. None of us can feel joy, contentment and peace alone. But when the community recognizes our common, shared humanity, we together exhibit “in the mess or madness of it all, … a sacred potential–a possibility for wondrous redemption in the embracing of all that is.”