Conversations, News » Decade 9.11, Lessons of 9.11: The Witness of Care Givers

Sun 11 September 2011ShareComment

911 memorial at night

All of us at Schola wish to acknowledge all who still bear the intimate wound of 9.11’s great wounding – the families and friends of those who perished in the attacks on our city and country. We sincerely pray that this has been a decade of healing for you and your hearts’ profound grief.

As one of the first responders in the ministry of spiritual care, permit me to share something of the lessons learned in that season and the many seasons since then.

It has been a daunting task to revisit those dark days and discern the wisdom offered to me and to us, buried in the rubble of that catastrophe. But I shall try to tell you a story of my experience and learnings ….

Like all of you I woke up to a glorious day on September 11, 2001. The pristine clarity of the air and the sky after the previous night’s rain and eerie fog that had veiled Manhattan was really heavenly. I had an early doctor’s appointment that morning and was listening to National Public Radio on my drive when I heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Immediately I called my Congregation sister Stacy Hanrahan with whom I lived to say, “Stacy don’t go to the UN today,” (she was our congregation’s NGO representative to the United Nations); “don’t go down to the city – something is terribly wrong.” I rushed home to her and to my sister and another dear friend all of whom were watching the second tower come down while my sister was on the phone with the wife of one of the her patients who worked in that tower. All of it was happening so suddenly in real time, telecast for all to see, and we actually knew, calling people at the center of this surrealistic drama.

I watched in horror and amazement trying to calculate the dimensions of the devastation unfolding before us, but no doubt, like all of you, none of the ordinary faculties were able to take it in. It was all shock, incomprehension.

In that room with us was a dear friend, truly a sister to me, Peggy Healy, who had been a Maryknoll Missioner in Central America in the 70’s and 80’s – Salvador, Nicaragua particularly – during the decades of war there that left thousands dead, maimed or disappeared, wars largely supported by our country. She had accompanied countless impoverished widows and children who were dispossessed by these wars, and had herself found countless victims in their shallow graves, the road kill of barbaric violence, not the least of whom were her four dear friends in mission, the American Martyrs of El Salvador, in whose jeep she was to have been traveling the night of their executions.

I knew that Peggy, no stranger to the heart of darkness, would be down there at Ground Zero in a New York minute and so I said to her: “I am going with you.”

The next day she was down there scouting out opportunities for service, and a day later we were down there together at the Robert Kennedy Center preparing food and cots for the rescue workers for their respites, and like so many other New Yorkers, doing whatever needed to be done. We listened as the first responders came in dazed, bewildered that there were so few persons being rescued or recovered. Then it began to dawn on us that this was a disaster like no other, and the gaping hole in the depths of our city was replicating itself in human hearts whose calculus was nearly impossible to compute: nearly 3000 times infinity. Our concern quickly shifted from victims to survivors and the thousands of families and friends who in the space of moments had their whole lives devastated while most of them watched the dark drama unfold on their TVs.

For days Peggy and I would go and walk the city streets accompanying people holding up photos of their loved ones hoping that someone had seen them, or looking for relatives in the city’s hospitals and morgues. So many, so so many people roaming the streets, and many alone, and we would just walk with them, close beside them, sometimes inquiring for them in the hospitals that were so in emergency mode and little organization to aid them in their desperate search.

We would offer them food and drink, we would wait with them and pray with them, and then move on to the next hospital with them. It was only the first week but I was learning from Peggy how to just move toward the suffering, with immense kindness and fierce intention. With a steely and tireless will and an immensely tender heart. My first lesson of 9.11 was solidarity and showing up: getting there and being there. Like the rescue workers who just go into the catastrophe to see whom they can save, I was learning to move toward, to enter in to the wreckage of the human heart.

As the days went on the city began to organize and redirect its relief and support to the families of the victims with the opening of The Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 on the Hudson, and then there was a call for volunteers of all sorts. Peggy and Sister Stacy were immediately qualified to be caregivers because one was a nurse practioner and the other a social worker. But I had no credential – theologians were a bit beside the point at this point. But ministers were not – they were greatly needed, anyone duly ordained was urged to come and form teams of a whole new corps of aid workers: spiritual care givers.

But since my church does not ordain women, I had to imagine how to procure one immediately. Why not my own Congregation confer its ordination? And so it did, sealed in a letter from our Community Leader, echoing the words of our founder, Marguerite Bourgeoys: “go: gather up the blood of the Savior which is being shed through the ignorance of human persons…” With this ordination in hand I went to the training sessions for interfaith ministers, sponsored by the American Red Cross and SAIR – the government’s air disaster relief core that offers spiritual care, counseling and comfort to the families of plane crash disasters.

The three day training was intense and serious, and I found myself one of an interfaith cohort of spiritual care givers that gave me a whole new sense of ministry for this new millennium and the crises we would be facing as ministers – not preparation to walk with a few people or even a congregation of people, but now in this “seminary for disaster, and mega disaster” I was learning that the field of ministerial care in our time was way beyond the church or mosque or temple or synagogue. It was as it probably always has been, on the streets and in hospital waiting rooms and makeshift tents that shelter survivors. And I was learning that ordinations abound and that suffering and need was the mother of ordination. And I was learning to rejoice in this kind of covert ordination that seemed to suit me well.

My first day as a spiritual care giver was the opening day of the Family Center at Pier 94, probably near the berth our ship The Marine Tiger slipped into when my parents and I arrived in America a half century earlier with nothing but hope, and a few phone numbers. I was totally apprehensive, and laboring to anchor myself in the silent Jesus Prayer. The arena was vast – whole city blocks of space filled with booths from the companies that employed the victims of the Towers, to the aid and relief agencies, support groups, food court – just an enormous city within a city. And in the back, past the bank of desks in their dozens that serviced the translators of every imaginable language spoken on this planet, was the DNA station where family members were to bring samples for their loved one’s identification.

When they opened the doors to welcome the families I stood in dread at the tsunami of suffering coming through those doors, just incalculable waves and waves of people for more than 9 hours, that never lessened in density or desolation as the time went on.

As I stood there alone completely unknowing of what to do or how to be and feeling that I could not do this, and who was I to even imagine I was up for this – this fathomless depth of grief – just as I was about to pass out, a woman on the arm of her son did in fact pass out right at my feet, overcome by her own anguish and its augmentation in the weeping and wailing that echoed throughout the arena. As she went down, I went down too, but not to faint: to catch her. As kept keening “I cannot do this; I cannot do this” (bring her daughter’s DNA to the ID area), I told her son I would say with her while he did. So I did, and for hours as she rested in my arms, weeping and swooning, crying “O Dios Mios – my daughter, my daughter.” And though we could not speak each other’s language, the primal word of human embrace was an eloquence all its own, as I held her and she held me, as I comforted her and she comforted me, empowered me.

In that long, silent interval of communion, I learned that I did not have to take all this suffering in en mass, in its totality, in its ceaseless human waves, but simply one Maria at a time. Just one – this one person before me, just that one, whomever God would send. And in touching just that one, I had somehow, would somehow, touch it all – so commingled were all the victims and survivors and witnesses of this horror, so commingled is every being and element of this stunning and suffering planet. Maria was a great teacher to me.

A week after the pulverization of the Towers and all within them, my sacramental self wanted so much to sacralize the site, and to ritually acknowledge the presence of thousand of presences there, and let the families receive the cremains of their loved ones’ bodies. So I wrote a letter to the mayor and the Cardinal to ask them to commission a rite and ritual of reception of the sacred ashes of lost loved ones, to be offered in a small urn or flask that could be given to the families.

I got no reply. But several weeks later we were called to administer the distribution of the ashes of the Trade Towers to the families and loved ones at Pier 94. I learned that a city of incalculable diversity – Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and all the atheists and agnostics in between can ritualize together – we can be one beloved community together. It is possible.

As I stood at my station, a young man was presented and received the ashes of his new bride. It was my charge to escort him down the long lanes of such stations, fanning out into a maze of many such alters. With my heart beating nearly explosively inside me with emotional confusion and anguish, I dared to say: “what was your beloved’s name…” He said back softly and curtly to the stranger beside him: “Patricia.” And I burned with shame and regret that I could not just hold my own collateral pain and be his silent escort, his guard, his shield against intrusion in this most intimate and disorienting moment of having his young spouse once again and never again in his embrace. This bereaved young man, full of rage and desolation all at once, was a great teacher for me: say nothing in the face of such suffering. Learn the lesson of solemn silence. Presence. Just this: real presence.

How had I not learned this lesson from the fire fighters and steel workers at the Pit? I had ample opportunity while escorting the Families to the Site each day over the several months. At first the protocol was very raw and rugged: a care giver or minister would be assigned a family to mind on the short boat trip down from Hell’s Kitchen to the tip of Manhattan where the Towers had been. We were given Teddy Bears to offer them, which made my pseudo-sophisticated New York sensibilities cringe – “why do they do this?” Well it turns out that all the hundreds upon hundreds of stuffed animals were the gift of Oklahomans who had lost their loved ones in the Murrow Building bombing by a young, handsome, blond and blue eyed American terrorist named Timothy McVeigh. And not just their bears, but they came themselves and stayed for weeks and weeks – these family survivors. How it humbled me to witness them in their ministry of solidarity and care, and as I arrived that first time down to the site which was our Earth’s own black hole, I found myself clutching the ludicrous teddy bear to shield my heart against the magnetism of Ground Zero’s merciless maw. At that mind-bending moment I learned that love can travel in any vehicle.

As we docked, everyone who was in any vicinity of the Pit or pier went into an absolute stillness: a whistle would blow and hundreds of rescue workers would just freeze, the ones closest to the ferry, forming an honor guard. Hard hats in hand, hand over heart, they would form cordons of honor guards covered in dust to welcome the families into the mysterious place, to protect them and bow to them while being very still.

The families would likewise stand in perfect silence, just gazing, just doing a 360 of regard for what was there, for who was there, and not there. This was a great grave, a resting place – a never resting place. They would linger; we would stand like valets, attending, accompanying. It all felt timeless. At last we would form our recessional, make our way back to the boats, through the same aisles of solemn silent witnesses who had met the families with immense dignity as when we had arrived.

At Ground Zero I learned that the most moving liturgists were not priests trained at Notre Dame University’s School of Liturgy and Worship or some Episcopal seminary, but in the real and deadly sanctuaries of suffering and eclipsing mystery. How I wanted to apprentice with them to learn their dignified restraint in the face of such sorrow, how they disappeared themselves, how to practice their authenticity and humility and decency in their self-sacrificing ministry.

So many many more memories and learnings yet to be excavated from the cavernous depths of memory, and even the senses’ files, but for now these few lessons and the learnings, one decade later:

I learned at Ground Zero and the Family Center that a hell realm could be transformed into the Kingdom of God by loving presence to one who suffers – that we can really transform a war zone into a new city of hope. It’s in us to do it so why don’t we do it?

I learned that as the whole world was changed by 9.11 (the whole world literally suffered it in the great diversity and pluralism of our one global city New York) that I do desire to be a citizen of such a city where all are welcome and all are aided. The kind of America I want to rebuild is one more open and daring in its generous welcome of everyone from anywhere, as it did me, and the countless every-kind who perished on that tragic day.

I learned, too, that we live among some of the most splendid human beings on this Earth, the ones who have congregated in the great sprawl that is the metropolitan area of NY and our neighbors New Jersey and Connecticut and all who suffered nearly unsustainable loss those days.

I learned that we can be an interfaith and meta-religious world if we wanted to be: that Jews and Christians and Buddhists and Muslims can minister and pray together because we did it there at Pier 94 and GZ for months and months.

Sadly, and perhaps most tragically of all, I learned that we could take and squander the grace of that sacrificial moment and turn it toward the desolation of other peoples in two wars that rage on, with few counting the months and years of our folly and in one case fiction, nor the deaths upon deaths piling up in America’s longest wars: our response to 9.11. This breaks my heart: that we have chosen to respond to the horrific and savage violence of 9.11 with shock and awe, with deeper and deeper entrenchment in the way of war and violence – the way that can bring to others, and mostly to innocents, nothing but the very anguish we commemorate today. In that we as a nation have missed the lesson of 9.11 and so may be doomed to repeat it.

One foggy night as I walked to the Family Center for the 8 PM to midnight shift, I suddenly felt as if I were back in London, but in the body of my own precious mother, who would then have been a young Irish girl in her twenties, an orphan from infancy, an immigrant and in many ways an exile making her way home from her shift at the Savoy Hotel. I could feel her anxiety that night in 1944 transform into resilience as she was determined to survive the terrorist attacks on her city that happened almost nightly – the Nazi Blitzkrieg that killed countless people during the Second World War. Then I thought of the countless modalities of terrorism at play on our planet and realized our US disaster, while unique, is nothing new; in some form or another it is happening all over our planet – times past and present – Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Nigeria, Syria, Gaza, and in the drug wars of Mexico and Latin America. The list is endless, the victims countless wherever blood-rage spreads its viral pathology, and if we don’t learn how to heal this most lethal strain in the human system, it will be our future.

As I turned the corner astride the majestic mist veiled Hudson, I swore by the spirit of my resilient mother who had survived her own generation’s terror to bear me, that if such evil was dedicated to destruction, I would create. If its ministers would rupture, I would learn to mend. If they brought down, I would build up; if they would crucify, I would practice resurrection. If they would be hate, as The Little Flower said with her dying breath: “I will be love.”

Sr. Kathleen Deignan, CND
Contact Kathleen

Leave a comment