Things Seen and Unseen: A Question of Faith

Things Seen and Unseen: A Question of Faith

by The Rev. Canon Elizabeth M. Keaeton

There's an old saying about war and faith, "There are no atheists in fox holes."  Even for the person of God, one thing is certain: there is nothing like war to test one's faith.

It was my deep privilege to have served as part of the ministry of the Seamen's Church Institute (SCI) the first weekend after the disaster at the World Trade Center.  SCI has a facility at Port Newark and one on Water Street, in-between Bleeker Street and Peck Slip, on the thin end of the island of Manhattan just across from has become known as "ground zero." Barbara Conroy, a nurse and my partner, went in with me to lend a hand on the first Saturday night and Sunday morning after the tragedy.  

Jean Smith, Episcopal priest and Chief Operations Officer at SCI, has miraculously transformed the Water Street offices into an Emergency Relief Canteen. The first floor entrance and reception area have been converted into a "free store" that provides sundries such as cough drops, aspirin, eyewash, antacids, batteries (in ALL sizes), tooth brushes and paste, along with a change of underwear and socks, sweatshirts, and shoes. Private offices have become bunk space for the volunteers and staff who work there.  

The second floor is completely devoted to the needs of the rescue workers: a bathroom facility to wash away at least the first layer of grime. Offices have been turned into sleeping quarters and a Canteen where everything from hot coffee, cold drinks, healthy snacks, fresh fruit, sandwiches, hot meals and desserts are served "24/7."

There are no words to adequately describe what I saw there and at "ground zero" so I won't even attempt to do that.  Not even the excellent media coverage can communicate all that is "and is no longer" there.  Instead, I'll give you three "word pictures" which I hope will speak to the test of faith that these dark days bring to bear.   

The first came early in the night, a wee bit of levity while we were standing outside the offices of SCI, waiting for the truck to return from its previous assignment in order to fill it up again and take more supplies out to the front lines.  We relied on small talk to fill the large void that might have otherwise been crammed with anxiety and frustration.

The SCI Chaplain, a priest named Mary, was describing some of her work. She had recently taken an additional part time position as interim rector in a small mission in Chinatown. Mary is learning to preside at the Eucharist in Chinese, and has discovered that the word for "bread," if you say the inflection at the end with a bit too much enthusiasm, can become "garlic." So, at the altar rail she sometimes provides to her parishioners, "The body of Christ, the garlic of heaven." 

"The only way I know that I've done that is when one of the folks looks up at me and silently giggles," she said. "It's a good thing their faith is stronger than my linguistics."

A few minutes later I found myself in a truck delivering supplies at the makeshift emergency relief center at St. Paul's Chapel -- a ministry of Trinity, Wall Street.  In the truck with me were two women who were neighbors and had been volunteering at SCI since Tuesday afternoon.  It was the first time they had been this close to "ground zero."   

The looks on their faces matched the devastation all around us.   One woman got on her cell phone, "Yes.  I'm here.  No, that building is gone.  Completely gone.  Oh, look! I can see your building.  Yes!  It's still standing.  Yes, I can see it.  Honest.   Yes, it is still standing."   She begins to cry. "Why would I lie to you?  I'm right here and I can see it.  I know it's unbelievable.  Of course, it doesn't make sense. You must believe me. I don't know why it's here and others are not.  I can't answer that.  I can only tell you what I see, and even though I can't believe it either, you have to believe me."

I thought of another, ancient time when another woman, having seen the empty tomb with her own eyes, made a call of her own and was not believed.

Back at the Canteen, workers came in short spurts for a break. After a while, you didn't need a uniform to know who was doing what or where they were doing their work. You only needed to watch the body language, listen to the tone of the conversations, and paid attention to what they ate.

The police were frustrated. You could hear it. Ordered into mandatory twelve hour shifts, their work consisted of "being present" at intersections and street corners -- huddled blue bundles of testosterone sending the message that everything is under control.  New York's finest, here to "protect and serve."  What they wanted was to get their hands dirty.  Move some dirt around.  Get in on the action. They demolished the coffee and snacks -- especially the chocolate bars.  Sugar and caffeine became the weapons of choice in the war against mounting frustration and heartbreaking boredom.

The Con Edison Guys were the "salt of the earth" -- providing unintentional comic relief for the night. They RAVED over the meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  A neighbor had correctly guessed that "comfort food" would be most appreciated and made 75 pounds of meatloaf that was the hit of the evening.  "I'll marry the person who made this meatloaf," said one 56-yearman in a ConEd shirt covered with white dust, adding, "And if it's a guy, I'll marry him anyway and let him cheat on me."

The firefighters and National Guard broke your heart.  Weary.   Bone tired.  They dragged themselves up the stairs and through the glass doors into the cafeteria.  After a while, we learned to encourage them to wash up first, drink some fluids and rest before attempting to eat anything.   ;They spoke softly, with a kind of rehearsed politeness one hears in church or funeral parlors.  They sat alone by themselves or in small groups of silent conversation.  The room filled with a respectful hush, honoring their unspoken wishes.

One man whom Barbara had sent for some rest and fluid returned for some food.  "What will you have, sir?" she asked, "I'll have a cheeseburger, pleas e, ma'am," he said.  Barbara looked around at the serving table for the cheese she knew was not there. She looked back at him and said, "Would you like that a quarter-pounder?"  "Yes," he said brightly, "that would be good.  A quarter-pounder with cheese, please."   

Barbara looked around the table, watching the man watch her, both of them knowing that the cheese they wanted was not there. She took the bun, put one hamburger patty on the bread, followed by another, covered it with the top of the bun, closed her eyes and gave it a bit of a squeeze before handing it to the man saying, "Here's your quarter-pounder with cheese, sir."  He smiled and said with genuine gratitude, straight from his broken heart, "Thank you, ma'am.  Thank you so much."

Here's what I have learned about faith in my first week of war:   

Spiritual nourishment, delivered with genuine sincerity and enthusiasm, can cross all boundaries and beliefs and languages, and is not diminished one iota in its power by any human foible or flaw.

Faith in what is seen and not believed is no greater than faith in what is not seen and not believed.  

Perfect love can cast our fear, and it can even turn the empty space between two burgers into cheese, but it is not strong enough to turn the back the hands of time, or undo the devastation, or bring loved ones back from the dead.

And, finally, this: Faith is what you find yourself holding onto when every thing else you know and love has been destroyed. Hope is the sound of laughter in the midst of devastation and in the face of evil. Faith, hope and love abide, these three; and, the greatest of these is love, which believes all things, forgives all things, and endures all things.

Which is a good thing, indeed, because the test of our love, hope and faith has only just begun.


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