good people and their haven

It's a chink in my atheistic armor, but I'll admit I have a soft spot for both the people and the institutions of the world's most human and progressive religious communities.

The folks connected to St. Paul's Chapel in downtown Manhattan, along with their ancient stones, wood and plaster, answered to that description long before September 11 last year. They're good and gentle, often gay (although regretably too often male). They minister to the homeless (the eighteenth-century baroque balconies were furnished with good beds), the place is very beautiful and very old, and besides, their often adventurous noon-time concerts with their eclectic audiences were the regular highlight of my workday at the World Trade Center. What's not to like?

For most of the last year the Chapel has served the City in a very different way, but one not out of its character. Tomorrow finally marks its return to a more conventional ministry, after a thorough cleaning and restoration, but Mike Borrero, the property manager for Trinity, the episcopal parish of which St. Paul's is a part, says, "It feels like there's something missing. It feels empty."

What is missing are firefighters and police officers and construction workers stretched out on the pews, desperate for a few hours' respite from ground zero; chiropractors, massage therapists and podiatrists stationed along the north aisle (the podiatrists working out of the presidential box in which Washington worshiped); volunteers dishing out hundreds of meals at tables under the organ gallery or handing out supplies — socks, gloves, sweatshirts, ponchos, boots, shovels, aspirin, lip balm, toothpaste — along the south aisle. What is missing are the banners, photos, greeting cards and children's drawings that hung from every surface but the altar.

Pointedly, however, the scratches and scuffing remain from the boots and belts and equipment of the emergency workers who camped out in the pews. "Our decision was to leave it as a monument," said the Rev. Samuel Johnson Howard, vicar of Trinity parish. "These are real marks of their ministry, sacramental marks."

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Published on August 24, 2002 7:54 PM.

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