Monday, September 09, 2002

A Sacred Duty

I still read the Philadelphia Inquirer online to stay in touch with events back east. Also, frankly, the Inky is one of the great newspapers. Today’s edition included this story. I can't say anything that would illuminate it or make it more significant. These actions — and the words of this new liturgy — speak for themselves.

Phila. priest tends a 2d flock - 9/11 victims
As chaplain for the N.Y. Medical Examiner's Office, he must comfort those with faith and without.
By Larry Fish
Inquirer Staff Writer

NEW YORK - In a way, Episcopal priest Charles T.A. Flood has had two parishes for the last year - one at St. Stephen's on 10th Street in Center City Philadelphia, and the other at a cluster of refrigerated truck trailers near Manhattan's East River.

The 58-year-old rector of St. Stephen's has been one of two primary chaplains working at New York's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which is the way station for all the human remains recovered from the World Trade Center site across town. The thousands of bits of remains are given identification numbers and stored in the trucks, parked in an off-limits space outside the Medical Examiner's Office on First Avenue, awaiting DNA tests and eventual burial.

Ministering first to the huge team of specialists that received and analyzed the remains, and then to the family members who regularly visit the site, Mr. Flood said the experience had deepened his faith and spirituality, despite the fact that the guidelines for the interfaith chaplaincy require that the symbols and language of his Christian background be kept out of this work.

"We're here as a symbol of the presence of God in the worst of circumstances," Mr. Flood said. "We are not here acting as Episcopalians."

On Wednesday, the anniversary of the attacks, Mr. Flood will preside over services at St. Stephen's at noon, then head to New York and the Medical Examiner's Office for the rest of the day.

Being a chaplain under almost any circumstance is a very different kind of ministry from being a parish priest or imam of a local mosque, said Jo Schrader, executive director of the 3,800-member Association of Professional Chaplains, based in Illinois.

Most chaplains work in hospitals or other institutions where people face crises but may share no religious understanding. The chaplain must be able to deliver a message broad enough to include everybody, but still be meaningful to those with well-formed beliefs.

"They have to have the ability to minister to anyone of any faith, or of no faith," Schrader said. "It puts a lot on their plates. There's a difference in skills. There's a difference in knowledge" compared with clergy who deal primarily with those of their own traditions.

Mr. Flood, who also briefly worked directly atop the rubble pile of the World Trade Center shortly after Sept. 11, admitted that at first he found it a little unsettling to be representing not a specific church or even faith, but God.

"You're stepping out as a religious shaman almost - as a stranger outside the tribe," he said.

The chaplaincy at the Medical Examiner's Office was begun in mid-September by another Episcopal priest, Betsee Parker. Mr. Flood joined her in late October, and they have had volunteers come and go throughout the year.

They were funded by the American Red Cross through April, and operated from a trailer office parked near the refrigerated trucks. Their "parish" consisted of the hundreds of specialists working daily at the site, and Mr. Flood said people of all faiths, and those with no real beliefs, were there.

"It's hard work" to find the words to speak to such a diverse group, he said.

"It's really an attempt to find common religious iconography and identity. It is not an attempt to bring everything down to mooshy pap. It's an attempt to make things so simple that everybody understands."

Mr. Flood wrote the litany that is now used at the services held outside the trailers every Friday.

"We give thanks," the litany says in part, "for those in our own time who have inspired us, for Mother Teresa, for Martin Luther King Jr., for Gandhi who showed us the path of peace."

After a moment of silence, the litany continues:

"We bless with our tears the ground which has been made holy by the blood of the innocent. The hill of Calvary where Jesus was crucified. The gas chambers where the innocent of God's chosen people were slain. The killing fields of Cambodia. The City of Oklahoma - ground consecrated by the blood of children."

In the litany's concluding prayer, the leader says that "God asks us to leave this place and take up the cause of our own lives."

"If an artist was lost, then some of us must find a creative spirit within ourselves and fill the void. If a person of faith was lost, then some of us must become deeper people of faith."

It ends with a call for God to "hold those who died in your arms... . May these souls and the souls of all the departed rest in peace."

Mr. Flood said some families who now attend the services, which are closed to outsiders and the press, want to light candles or leave flowers. Others want no religious observance at all, he said.

Since April, when Red Cross funding ran out, Ms. Parker and Mr. Flood have essentially operated out of their own pockets. Though they are officially attached to the medical examiner's staff, they are not paid. Mr. Flood has been buying his train tickets to New York.

He said he and Ms. Parker were prepared to keep the chaplaincy running for as long as three years, which medical examiner Charles S. Hirsch said might be the duration of the operation.

Even if families should stop coming, Mr. Flood said, he felt he should be here to represent the presence of God with the dead whose remains rest in the trailers.

"Our presence here is a sacred duty," he said.

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