January 18, 2011 — I first saw the Tree of Hope during the 2003 Christmas season. At that time I worked at the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan. Every evening as I walked around the former site of the World Trade Center to the subway that would take me back to Brooklyn, I passed by that tree, located in the northwest corner of the old graveyard of St. Paul’s Chapel.
The spruce was lit not with strands of conventional Christmas lights but with green, red, and white spotlights from the ground that illuminated the many snow-white doves perched on its branches.
While a nice gesture, the little tree only made me more aware of the emptiness on the other side of the street. In my mind, no tree, no matter how beautiful, could possibly fill the void left by nearly 3,000 people and the majestic structures in which they worked.
The following spring I became a member of Trinity Church, which owns St. Paul’s Chapel. And that November found me at the start of another Christmas season, the fourth since 9/11. As usual, the approaching holidays brought with them feelings of warmth and happiness but also a deepening of the ache that never completely goes away. That year, however, my view of the Tree of Hope was different, for I knew much more of its story.
Haven at Ground Zero
St. Paul’s Chapel dates back to before the United States’ Revolutionary War and is the oldest building in continuous use in Manhattan. It survived the Great Fire of 1777—which was set by the British to punish New Yorkers for their support of the rebels and destroyed most of what was then New York City—because the neighboring residents formed a bucket brigade and successfully kept the flames from harming the building.
After George Washington was inaugurated a few blocks away on Wall Street, he stopped at St. Paul’s to pray. For more than 250 years the chapel has served as a quiet place of prayer and meditation for workers and residents of New York City’s world-renowned financial district.
Because of its purpose as a place of ministry to its community, as well as its close proximity to the Trade Center site, St. Paul’s played a central role in the rescue and recovery efforts following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Weary rescue workers and volunteers found there a desperately needed place of rest. Doctors and massage therapists came to soothe aching muscles. Singers and musicians came to soothe aching souls. The pews of the chapel became temporary cots for people unwilling or unable to return to their homes to sleep. The marks they made on the pews while they rested are still there.
This ministry continued until workers removed the last piece of Trade Center wreckage at the end of May 2002. Throughout that time, the staff of St. Paul’s received thousands of cards, letters, banners, and other gifts sent to them from people all over the world. Visitors and passersby left their own messages of thanks and encouragement on the gate surrounding the chapel.
Once the cleanup was complete, it became clear that St. Paul’s had quite a story to tell. A temporary exhibit titled “Out of the Dust: A Year of Ministry at Ground Zero” opened in September 2002, and in March 2004 it recorded its one-millionth visitor. In May of that year, a permanent exhibit opened, and that summer more than 20,000 people visited it each week.
I walked through this exhibit three times, once by myself the day after it opened and twice with visitors from out of town. It’s filled with pictures and personal testimonies of the people who benefited from St. Paul’s ministry, as well as many of the items the chapel received from so many people across the globe. I’m never able to experience it without a strong mix of emotions. I feel such grief at the tremendous pain brought to my neighborhood and my entire country. But I’m also filled with amazement at the utter selflessness of my community and the remarkable strength I have witnessed since I first began working downtown.
What makes the story of St. Paul’s truly amazing is that, by all logic, the chapel should not be standing today.
On Sept. 11 more than 2 billion pounds of steel came crashing to the ground. The crash was so powerful it registered on the Richter scale. Everything inside and below the WTC buildings was smashed beyond recognition. Every window facing the Trade Center was blown out. Every nearby building suffered damage, some beyond repair. The destruction seemed endless. We now know that the total amount of energy released by the impact of the planes, the explosion of jet fuel, the massive fires burning inside the towers, and finally the towers’ collapse equaled the power of a small atomic bomb.
It wasn’t until Sept. 14 that anyone was able to inspect what was left of St. Paul’s. Miraculously, where workers expected to see a pile of rubble, they instead found a completely intact chapel. Not a window had been broken (one was cracked). Not an inch of the walls or the roof had been compromised. The building’s structure was as sound as it had ever been.
Inside a six-inch layer of dust coated everything, which did wreck the pipe organ, but otherwise nothing had been damaged—with one notable exception. The giant sycamore tree that had stood in the northwest corner of the graveyard—on the spot where the Tree of Hope now stands—had been knocked over in the collapse.
People say that tree was responsible for saving the chapel. For a long time I resented the idea. How, I thought, could a single tree—no matter how massive—possibly have saved a tiny building from the collapse of two skyscrapers? Why do people always feel the need to explain away a miracle?
I found myself thinking about that tree more and more. And suddenly I realized I’d been missing the point.
The very fact that the force of the collapse was enough to knock down such a large tree made the complete survival of St. Paul’s all the more remarkable. It was almost as if all the power and fury of the disaster surrounding the church had somehow been directed at that one tree. While much larger, newer buildings suffered massive structural damage, tiny St. Paul’s Chapel was barely touched, leaving it available to provide desperately needed support to those working tirelessly to clear the Trade Center rubble. One tree, sacrificed to save the church.
The much smaller spruce tree planted in the sycamore’s place is once again lit with spotlights and decorated with snow-white doves. As we gather to turn on the lights and begin another Christmas season, we sing the traditional carols that since 9/11 have more poignant meaning. I’m not yet at the point where I can sing “Joy to the World” and truly feel it in the present, and I don’t expect to reach that point in the near future. But at Christmas we celebrate the birth of a tiny baby who had within him the power to save all of humanity. And I know there will finally come a day when sin and sorrow no longer reign—all because of another tree, another sacrifice.