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An open letter from Seamen's Church Institute

2001-259
9/19/2001
[Episcopal News Service]  Dear Friends of Seamen's Church Institute,

Just before 9 a.m. on September 11, the staff at 241 Water St. watched in horror the tragic demise of the World Trade Center a few thousand yards away. After the shock and numbness took its toll on the staff's shattered nerves, our beautiful chapel was a place of uncontrollable sorrow and grief.

But at our noon emergency meeting, as all the businesses and residences around us were frantically being evacuated, and 'building closed' signs were being posted on our blackened exterior, we held a phone conference with our chairman, George Benjamin. The decision was reached. For our beloved headquarters and its staff our mission had changed. For the foreseeable future we would open the building as a refuge -- immediately, for stranded evacuees trying to leave Manhattan, and then as a bastion of food, comfort and safety for the thousands of rescue workers flooding into lower Manhattan.

For 24 hours we ran through our own stocks of supplies, and those brought from the Church of our Savior in nearby Chinatown. With electric power and telephone service gone, the order of the day was cell phones and our huge outdoor grill . . .cooking hundreds of meals for fire and police officers, Con Ed workers and National Guard. Our stranded neighbors now joined our exhausted staff, bringing many offerings from their freezers, including steaks, hamburgers and crab legs! The grill has worked overtime until now. Our communications director, Debra Wagner, cell phone glued to her ear, set up a supply chain, using Mary Morris of the Episcopal Church's General Theological Seminary as our conduit for food donations and volunteers,

By Wednesday afternoon, Day 2, immediate supplies were finished. Then vans began arriving from New York's prestigious restaurants, which had kicked into action swiftly. Daniel Boulud, the wait staff of the Union Square Café, Balducci's, Le Madeleine, Great Performances, and others braved the many roadblocks to supply the burgeoning food service at 241 Water St.

Church leaders mobilized quickly, as well. New York's Bishop Mark Sisk and Archdeacon for Mission Michael Kendall arrived in the morning of Day 2, and were the first to tour the 'Frozen Zone', where ash and debris covered the horrific ruins of the World Trade Center. That afternoon and evening, Dean Ward Ewing of General Seminary worked non-stop to bring seminarians and donated hot food to SCI. On Friday, during the cold torrential rains which scoured the wreckage and chilled workers to the bone, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and his wife Phoebe arrived along with volunteers from the Episcopal Church Center. Photos by Debra Wagner and Preston Merchant, reproduced on these pages, were among the very first to come out of Ground Zero, and be placed on various church web sites and in Episcopal Life .

A Eucharist for volunteers and workers with the Presiding Bishop was held in the SCI Chapel on the National Day of Mourning. It was particularly meaningful for volunteers from Trinity Church, Wall Street, closed since the disaster, who had been serving at the canteen day and night. Bishop Griswold urged all of us to recognize the 'invitation' afforded by this tragedy to be Christ-centered people of peace and reconciliation. It was the Feast of the Holy Cross.

After two days, when the Port was closed completely, and our Chaplains were comforting seafarers restricted to their ships, the Rev. Dr. Jean Smith was coordinating three services of sorrow and remembrance for our Port Authority colleagues and port tenants...stunned and horrified by the devastation to the port community and those that manage our port, bridges, tunnels, and airports. So many were still unaccounted for. The services were held on the National Day of Mourning at Brooklyn, Port Elizabeth, and New York's SCI, all coordinated by Jean's hardworking colleagues.

All SCI friends should take pride in the SCI staff, working 24/7 to serve thousands of meals. We honor our neighbors, especially Steve, Roger, and Pete, who with trucks, generators, and moxie were able to set up our site at 241 as a canteen, and then set up a secondary feeding site at St. Paul's Chapel, one block from Ground Zero, by Wednesday. Money for 'Right now!' supplies came from workers and volunteers at SCI who literally thrust their ATM cards and PIN numbers at the drivers making runs to the Pathmark 20 blocks north. By Thursday we were supplying a third feeding site at 'The Pile' -- which was evacuated temporarily when the siren for 'imminent building collapse' sounded. It is up and running 24/7 now,

SCI gives thanks to God for countless volunteers and food donations, especially from Episcopal churches in the city and outlying suburbs. They are meeting emergency needs, braving checkpoints, bringing cheer, prayers, and literally tons of supplies which are being shuttled to Ground Zero. Those church friends came from Heavenly Rest, St. Mary's Manhattanville, St. Bartholomew's, Church of Our Savior, General Seminary, Union Seminary, The Episcopal Church Center, and the Mid-Hudson Region, to name only a few of the early ones. We give thanks for personnel from our training partners from the Western Rivers and the Gulf (including Sea River, Canal Barge, and Mid-South Towing), who were at SCI for training on that fateful Tuesday but stayed and pitched into the work with our staff.

By Day 5 we were the depot for two sites at Ground Zero and feeding hundreds of police officers, firefighters, Con Ed and telephone workers and members of the National Guard at 241 Water St. Again our staff, in conversation with our chairman, George Benjamin, elected to continue this work until 'normalcy' is returned to lower Manhattan.

We need your prayers, welcome your support, invite your participation. May God watch over all those who have been victimized by this tragedy, and may God strengthen all those called to a Ministry of Restoration. Our emergency number is 914-282-2450 . . . and all donations are channeled through Mary Morris at General Seminary: 212-243-5150.

Mr. George Benjamin
The Rev. Canon Peter Larom
The Rev. Dr. Jean Smith