Only in New York
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"Only in New York," my dad would repeat over and over as we'd walk through Time Square. Some of my fondest childhood memories included our trips through the Lincoln Tunnel and over to the renovated theatre, known as Times Square Church.
Even though my dad's sarcastic tone indicated that the scenes we'd see in the City were abnormal (which they often times were), I felt like a kid in a candy shop. Years later, I realize that I had tasted a glimpse of what it will someday be like in Heaven.
It truly is "only in New York" that you'd see both the homeless and entrepreneurs adjoined in the same pews, and heavenly in that every tribe and people group gathered under one roof. I still chuckle at the thought of not being able to leave my purse at my pew each time I'd go forward for an altar call.
Even as a child, I loved to people-watch, and New York was my front row seat to the greatest show on earth. It was always fun to guess where each passer-by was traveling, based on their walk or style of clothing.
These are some of the pre-9/11 thoughts of a younger "Jersey girl." I haven't been to the City since those early days, and I knew that my trip this past weekend would be unlike any other.
On September 8th, I boarded a flight from Newport News, Va., to New York City. I carried with me my child-like desire to be in the front row, yet not just as a spectator this time. I wanted to be a New Yorker, and I wanted to actively pay my respect to those who lost their lives; as well as minister to those deeply wounded by 9/11.
This trip was in part fueled by my desire to meet Father Harris, a minister of St. Paul's Chapel. Harris spearheaded the grueling eight-and-a-half month, 24-7 relief and rescue ministry from the church located a strone-throw away from Ground Zero. I recently interviewed him, and knew that his story required more than a phone call. I wanted to experience St. Paul's Chapel, the only building surrounding the World Trade Center, left miraculously undamaged.
This was an assignment from above, and required armor that went beyond a reporter's notebook. Aboard the plane, I flipped through my Bible, and landed on Isaiah 61:
"The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor" (NIV).
This passage was to be the theme of my trip. One of the first things I did upon my arrival, was the typical tourist climb to the top of the Empire State Building. I was with a friend of mine who found a look-out telescope, similar to the one he discovered when he was searching for remains from Ground Zero.
The hauntings of 9/11 upon this City were everywhere, and certainly not to be avoided by the passing of five years. When I looked out over the cityscape, I was stilled and asked God to show me what His view from Heaven upon New York looked like.
Past the enormous buildings, and bright lights, He whispered to me that He could see the souls of every New Yorker. New York was no longer a tourist attraction for me, but an attraction at a deeper level. Starving artists, high rollers, business execs, and homeless alike, I knew that every single New Yorker was deeply affected by 9/11. Therefore it became clear that the poor, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners that I read about in Isaiah 61 earlier that day, described the conditions of their souls'.
The next morning I took a stroll down Lexington Avenue to visit a nearby market. On my way, I met a homeless man who asked me to make room for his friends. I looked for his friends, but they were not to be found. Later that day, I joked about this schizophrenic episode and quoted my dad's favored phrase, "only in New York." Yet, this time I was interrupted by the same friend who showed me around the Empire State Building.
He told me that God is choosing to speak to our generation through the homeless, and boy did that stop me dead in my tracks. My post-9/11 ears knew this to be the truth.
As Isaiah 61 alludes,
"they (poor) will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor" (NIV).
I was first introduced to the 9/11 families at the "America's 9-11 Victims' Memorial Quilt" dedication ceremony. At first, I wasn't sure how Isaiah 61 could apply because the widows, parents, and children seemed so impenetrably grief-stricken. Yet, after Father Harris spoke, it was as if a veil of despair lifted. He declared the ceremony a stepping stone towards healing and reconciliation.
The group of volunteers who labored for years to make the 60-foot quilt, in my mind "bestowed on them (the 9/11 families) a crown of beauty instead of ashes" (Isaiah 61). The grieving were so appreciative to finally have something tangible to remember each of their loved ones faces. This meant a lot, because this would be the last year before the "Freedom Towers" would replace the grave site known as Ground Zero.
On Sunday morning, I visited St. Paul's Chapel for the first time. When I walked into the building, I just knew that it was a place "to comfort all who mourn" as again, Isaiah speaks.
I noticed a banner that read the "chapel-of-ease." What a fitting place for a war-time president like George Washington to worship, and even more remarkable for thousands of relief workers to seek refuge in the aftermath of 9/11.
Capturing my attention the most were the tables lining the sanctuary, displaying remnants from those rescue and relief efforts. As I walked the perimeter of the sanctuary, I was most struck by a bed with a teddy bear that a rescue worker slept in, and the fire-brazen boots hanging nearby that were never retrieved by some unidentified firemen.
As I listened to the minister recite the events of September 11th during his sermon, I couldn't help but to imagine what it must have felt like to experience what he described as two magnitude 3.5 earthquakes. He attempted to mimic the sound of the deafening blasts when each floor of both towers plummeted downward. One could only imagine the horror he experienced, yet how much more unimaginable to have withstood this in complete darkness.
At the time the first plane hit, the minister said that he was reading the beatitudes from His well-worn Bible. He urged the congregants to cling to those words even today no matter what they are going through, as he did five years ago.
Among those seated in the pews was Manuel Chea, who made it out alive from the 49th floor of the North Tower. He was there with his two sons, and I will never forget the ear-to-ear smile that he seemed to wear like a badge of honor.
Manuel was there in support of Sgt. Larry Provost, a rescue worker at Ground Zero who was to be baptized at St. Paul's that day by Father Harris. Larry chose for his godparents to be a couple who lost their young daughter at the Trade Center.
As I thought about the pain they must have felt each time they replayed the scenario of what could have been if their daughter had not shown up for a business meeting on the 92nd floor, just 45 minutes too early, I was deeply moved by their statement of support for their new spiritual son. Only in post-9/11 New York could I sit through a baptism service of this magnitude.
After church, I went back to Time Square and amused myself with the novelties of a Broadway show, street vendors and other crowd-pleasing sidewalk shows. After a fun-filled day of festivities, I retired back to my hotel.
While flipping through the channels that evening, I stumbled upon some news coverage from 9/11. There was a woman in the lobby with me that was so displeased by this, that she walked out. She later apologized to me, and we embraced. It was apparent that 9/11 was only hours away.
The next morning, I awoke to an early autumn breeze, piercing blue skies, and a very quiet city. From Midtown Manhattan to the Financial District, you could practically hear a pin drop. My friend Hannah, wrote about much of what we saw from a sidewalk just yards away from where the names of all those killed at the site were read out loud.
After the ceremony, we circled the perimeter of Ground Zero, and made our way back to the St. Paul's Chapel. I needed to return back to the heart of 9/11. It wasn't enough to remember. There was still some unfinished work.
As I walked closer to the church, I was once again reminded of the passage in Isaiah, the part that promises, "a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair." Two tables were set up with banners that read, "Police for Christ" and "Firemen for Christ" and in between the table was a woman singing worship songs and offering the city of New York a "garment of praise."
I walked up to one of the tables and was greeted with a free bible and meal. The man next to me was astonished, "What, you're giving away free stuff? This is New York. You don't see this stuff here," he said in his Brooklyn accent.
"Only in New York," I thought. "Only in post 9-11 New York."
I made it to St. Paul's, just in time for the memorial service. I'm not even sure if there was standing room available. A woman came in late, and motioned to me, asking if there was room to sit. I knew she was a New Yorker, and so I squeezed her in. I later learned that she was on her lunch break and worked on Wall Street, just as she did five years ago.
There were many tears during the service, especially when the beatitudes were sung out loud. The woman next to me could hardly move her lips to sing. At the end of the service, the minister offered to anoint those who were in need of healing with oil. Nearly every person in that church stood in line, which extended out the church doors.
This was my last memory at Ground Zero, and one I will never forget. Again, it seemed to capture the essence of what Isaiah described as "the oil of gladness instead of mourning."
Before I departed the City, I bought an "I love New York," keychain. Those words meant something very different now, as opposed to my early childhood years. It was no longer the tall buildings and yellow taxis that enraptured me, but the people. As the passage in Isaiah concludes, "they will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor."
The world has a lot to learn from New Yorkers. Each and every one of them has a story. Whether it be the Wall Sreet brokers or crazies on the street, it truly is "only in New York" that such splendor exists.
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