Compassion in Action – light in the darkness of 9-11

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“Everyone was wide open, but then they crusted over again.”   These words were spoken by someone living in New York City, describing the days and weeks following the 9-11 tragedy.  He goes on to say, “People loved that tender we’re- in- this- together feeling, however awful the cause.  But they couldn’t quite hang onto it.”

Marc Ian Barasch in his book,  Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, tells another story of a man who worked at the site of the fallen towers.  “Like so many workers at the Site, he had been overwhelmed by the carnage, sinking to the curb after his first night, under the savagely bright arc lamps, his head cradled in his hands.  ‘That’s when the Salvation Army kids appeared’, he remembers, ‘in their sneakers with their pink hair and their belly buttons showing and bandanas tied around their faces.  They came with water and cold towels and took my boots off and put dry socks on my feet.

And then, when I got to Houston Street, a bunch more of these kids, all pierced and tattooed with multicolored hair, had made a little makeshift stage.  They started to cheer as we came out, and that was it for me.  I never identified with those people before, but I started crying, and I cried for four blocks.  I can’t tell you – I was taken so off guard.’

Near the site, St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church became a haven, became “a church dedicated only to the fruits of compassion.  In place of stations of the cross, the enactment of Christ’s tortured journey, there were instead what one called “stations of compassion” that grew to include gourmet meals and clothing, massage therapists, and grief counselors.  Everything was donated in a spirit that people who were there still remark upon.  ‘Everybody who walked in that door experienced the same amount of love’, recalls one volunteer.  ‘It didn’t matter who they were.  It was so unconditional and so overpowering.  And when you were there, you knew that every creature in that room was loved as much as you were – and you were loved more than anybody.  I mean, there was no quantity to it.’

Food was given out ‘like Communion, with this love and goodwill that humbled you, this phenomenal trust and generosity that made you feel embarrassed, almost humiliated.’  Few of us, it seems, feel deserving of uncontingent goodness, yet here it was in flagrant abundance.  Maybe it was embarrassing to know, really know, that it had been there all along, free for the taking, and the giving.”

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A man who owned a restaurant in NYC said ” I learned that what mattered most was not being important, but belonging.”  A fireman said, about coming to St. Paul’s Chapel, “I come in that door, dirty, covered with blood, angry, pissed off, and they hug me.  They welcome me like I’m a real person.  They treat me like a human being.  And then after they hug me, they feed me, they massage me, they counsel me, and I sit here and listen to incredible music.  I come here every day not just for the hugs and the food.  This is where God is.  And these are my people.  This is my new family.  It’s the greatest sense of God’s presence I have ever known.”

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Another man commented, “I felt this deep, deep sense of human pain that I don’t remember I had ever felt.  I think the common denominator is the breakdown of your ego to a place of vulnerability.  We are brought up to think we all want to be happy and comfortable and up and that’s what we’re programmed to go for.  And I don’t think anybody in their right mind would want to go for the other.  But when you have been put there, you become aware that you can relate to others who have been there as well.”

One more paragraph from the book:  “With that connection, all barriers seemed to tumble.  Jews from a nearby synagogue helped celebrate the Eucharist.  A clergyman laughs at the memory.  ‘You did the what?’ I asked them.  ‘Yep’, they said.  ‘We did.  This is our church too’.  It was a full service chapel for everybody.  Even the atheists were happy.”

I just “happen” to be reading this chapter in this book on this day 9-11-14, and I just “happen” to have been reminded of a quote yesterday that says, “We can either be pulled by a vision or pushed by pain”.  The incredible, deep pain of that day in 2001 pushed people together in a common bond and brought an outpouring of love the likes of which most people had never seen before.  These stories are tragic but heart-warming and seem to be the only thing that made that time bearable for the people who experienced it.

It seems inevitable and even good in a way that things get “back to normal”.  Businesses need to be run, books written, children taught, cars repaired.    Could we at least use this day though to remember that we’re all in this together?  Could we possibly even extend that idea to people beyond our borders?  Could we open our hearts a little more, maybe a lot more, remind ourselves of the truths that people discover when their world has been torn apart – that compassion, belonging, love, and acceptance are the important things in life, that barriers come down when we forge a connection with one another?  Can we be pulled by a common vision of respect, unity, and love for all people, even when we have to take action sometimes to protect ourselves or stop the actions of people who don’t yet understand or accept that vision?  It seems the least we can do to honor those who lost their lives that tragic day.


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