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'Hell on Earth'

Ministers bring a blessing to Ground Zero.
By Donald E. Skinner
January/February 2002 1.1.02

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In a world filled with smoke and tragedy, they answered the call. In the first hours after the September 11 attacks and for weeks thereafter, Unitarian Universalists ministered in scenes of devastation. Some lived close by, others came from farther away, drawn by a conviction they could make things better in some small way.

The Rev. Christopher McMahon serves the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Water Mill, New York, but he also has a second job. A licensed captain, he is director of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s Global Maritime and Transportation School in Kings Point, New York, up Long Island Sound from Manhattan. Since 1993, when he graduated from the Starr King School for the Ministry, his ministry has been at sea and on land.

On the morning of September 11 he and all other available captains were pressed into service on boats evacuating people from the tip of Manhattan to New Jersey after the World Trade Center collapsed. “We went into a nightmare,” he wrote later in a sermon, “into a wrenching horror—a sight never seen before: every ferry, every tugboat, every vessel that could move—alongside the banks of Manhattan picking up people to bring them to safety.”

McMahon helped move police, firefighters, and other emergency aid workers. Later he helped move supplies and equipment into the city from New Jersey. As the crisis abated he was summoned to Washington, where he served as a special assistant to the office of the Secretary of Transportation.

Several UU ministers served as chaplains at ground zero, but not all the UUs who made a difference there were ministers. One was a violin student at The Juilliard School, one of the nation’s top conservatories. Six days after the trade center collapsed, William R. Harvey was part of a string quartet that Juilliard sent to play for rescue workers and the families of the missing. When the other musicians went home he stayed, playing solo for two and a half hours, largely for rescue workers as they came back from digging in the rubble pile in the largely futile search for survivors.

Harvey, a fourth-generation UU who grew up in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis, Indiana, played everything he knew by memory, from Bach’s B–minor partita to “Turkey in the Straw.” He played Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Dvorak, Paganini, “Amazing Grace,” on and on, till his fingers could barely continue.

“Somehow it didn’t matter that by the end my intonation was shot,” he said. “The men would come up the stairs in full gear, remove their helmets, look at me, and smile.” At 11:30 he played the national anthem as 300 workers saluted an invisible flag.

“Not only was this evening the proudest I’ve ever felt to be an American,” he said, “it was my most meaningful as a musician and as a person as well. I’ve never had a more appreciative audience, and I’ve never understood so fully what it means to communicate music to other people.”

The Rev. Danita Noland, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Society in New Haven, Connecticut, was one of several UU ministers who served as a chaplain, ministering to the firefighters, emergency workers, police, steelworkers, and utility workers who toiled around the clock in the rubble.

Being a UU minister gave her a special advantage, she said. “There were ministers of other denominations who had a very difficult time handling the different religious perspectives they came across. My training was about being present to the person. I didn’t feel a need to bring a particular religious perspective to every contact I made.”

She said she worries that as months pass the country will forget about those who worked so hard after the disaster. “They’d say to me, ‘I’m fine right now. Come and see me in eight months.’ My fear is we will have moved on and forgotten them.”

The Rev. Susan Suchocki Brown, minister at the First Church Unitarian Universalist in Leominster, Massachusetts, is also chaplain of the Leominster Fire Department. She served at the World Trade Center at the invitation of the International Association of Firefighters.

Working 12-hour shifts, she counseled workers at the site, at a morgue, and on the street. She was easily identified in her chaplain’s firefighter coat and helmet with a flaming chalice on the back.

When human remains were brought to the morgue she said the following prayer over them: “We pray for the repose of the soul of this person. May they be at peace. May they have died a quick and painless death. And may their family be at rest. Let us never forget that they gave their life for something bigger than all of us. Blessed be.”

“Each person’s life deserved to be treated with respect,” she said. “It never even occurred to me that we might have been saying a blessing over the body of a hijacker. Each person’s life had dignity; each had a mother and a father.”

The Rev. Jan Carlsson–Bull, assistant minister at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, also performed chaplain duty. “It’s ground that has been defiled and ground that is sacred,” she said. “It’s a testament to humanity at the apex of our possibility for evil and humanity at the apex of our possibility for good.”

Athena Drewes, a psychologist who is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Orange County, in Rock Tavern, New York, was called in to coordinate play therapists and other mental health professionals working with children at Pier 94, the center for relief agencies. When adults come to the pier to apply for help, Drewes and other professionals play with and listen to children at the center’s Kid’s Korner. “It’s a place where they can play, laugh, and talk with us,” she said. “In many cases their parents haven’t been able to be fully available to them because of all they’re coping with—the loss of family and jobs. The children seem to welcome the chance to speak to people who can listen to them. Their play can be quite aggressive and their drawings very graphic.”

“It’s very draining for the people who work with them,” said Drewes, who expected to continue at the center through December. “I found that my religion helped ground me.”

Dwight Ernest, a member of the First Unitarian Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a member of the UUA’s Electronic Communications Committee, served as a radio operator for the American Red Cross at the New York disaster site.

“It was awful, in the full meaning of that word,” he said. “I stood before the pile in a state of horrible awe. It was unspeakably huge, 20 stories high, unspeakably chaotic in appearance, and strangely quiet. It was hell on earth.

“I hope nobody ever does anything like this to anyone else in my name,” he said. “I hope and pray for justice, not for war, and I hope the criminals are brought to account. But every time I hear a personal story of the tragedy, I cry. I don’t think I will ever not respond that way.”

Henry Ticknor, intern minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia, was driving to church that Tuesday morning when American Airlines Flight 77 came in fast and low over his car and struck the Pentagon. “There was a puff of white smoke and then a huge billowing black cloud,” he said.

“In the days that followed I kept thinking about how vulnerable we are to events totally out of our control. I find myself with a heightened sense of responsibility to myself and to others and a desire to be kind and careful and courteous. I take great comfort in my own family and I’m more alert to ways in which I may not be inclusive of others.”

Representatives of a congregation in western Pennsylvania visited the third terrorism site, the field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Flight 93 crashed. The Rev. Priscilla Richter of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Indiana, Pennsylvania, served as a chaplain the day after the crash. A member, Helen Laughlin, spent several weeks there as a Red Cross worker.

As other chaplains arrived, Richter spent time with a large group of Amish. As she wrote later to ministerial colleagues, “That this quiet, rural area was the scene of such drama was quite unbelievable. These were not folks who had seen the images that we had witnessed this past week [on television]. I was yet again struck by how important it is for us to hear people’s stories, how important it is for them to share. And as the story began to emerge that something heroic had happened on that plane these folks felt a part of that heroism.”

See sidebar for links to other stories from UU World's special issue on the realities of life with terrorism.

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