By Archpriest John Matusiak, Director, OCA Communications Office
NEW YORK, NY—As Metropolitan Theodosius made his way to “Ground Zero” on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 19, he witnessed countless fire fighters, police, military personnel and civilian volunteers digging through the rubble of what had once been the World Trade Center. Gone were the “walking wounded.” Few of the concerned relatives and friends of missing WTC employees remained in the area.
As Metropolitan Theodosius and his companions drew closer to the massive heap of twisted steel and concrete, they encountered a lone woman keeping vigil for her three grown children, from whom she had heard nothing since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack destroyed the twin towers in which her children had worked.
“I just want something, anything, that I can bury,” she told one of Metropolitan Theodosius’ companions, Father Christopher Calin, whose parish, the Protection of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Cathedral, is a short distance from the site. “I don’t think they’ll find them, but I need something to bury.”
While Metropolitan Theodosius had witnessed countless tragedies during his nearly twenty-five years as Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, he flatly admitted that he was unprepared for the devastation he had seen.
“It reminded me of a war zone,” Metropolitan Theodosius said. “The twisted steel, the desolation, the smouldering pile of rubble numbs the senses.”
The “war zone” imagery set in before Metropolitan Theodosius, accompanied by Mr. Jason Vansuch, Mr. Michael Karloutsos, and several others, had even reached the site.
“We entered the area through a check point, at which we were asked for identification and for our Social Security numbers, and then we were given red badges,” Metropolitan Theodosius said. “Our eyes began to burn as we made our way past blocks of damaged cars, chunks of cement, broken glass, and choking dust.”
The group made its way to the site of Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, a mere 250 feet from the World Trade Center. The tiny church, housed in a building that dates back to 1832, had been completely destroyed when the first tower collapsed. Two Greek Orthodox priests visiting the site were quick to point out a small icon, barely damaged, resting on the pile of rubble, after which Metropolitan Theodosius celebrated a brief Memorial Service for those who had lost their lives in the attack.
“As we chanted ‘May their memory be eternal,’ I noticed that a crew of workers digging through the rubble paused to pray with us,” Metropolitan Theodosius recalled. “After we concluded our prayers, we approached the workers, who had a ‘who is he’ look on their tired faces! Assuming that they had never seen an Orthodox bishop, I introduced myself. At once, the foreman told the workers to remove their hard hats for a moment of silence as I led them in prayer for the two victims whose bodies they had been struggling to remove.”
“I was overwhelmed by the respect and gratitude they displayed during, and especially after, we prayed,” Metropolitan Theodosius said. “They couldn’t stop thanking us for our presence and prayers, and I blessed them and told them not to lose hope. It felt good to see that our brief encounter and prayer had reassured them as they returned to their gruesome task.”
“I never thought I would see this in our own country,” Metropolitan Theodosius told a reporter and film crew from FOX broadcasting who, “like the workmen, were curious as to who we were. But after another brief explanation, they asked me about funerals, about praying for the departed. As I explained that funerals involve more than praying for the dead, that they give hope to the living in the face of death, that they offer the living a thread to hold on to when all else seems lost, I couldn’t help but think that they were looking for answers for themselves, not only for their viewers—a humbling thought.”
Other journalists and photographers followed Metropolitan Theodosius as he paused to speak and pray with volunteers and fire fighters from California, Washington, Illinois, and elsewhere.
“A fireman from Texas asked me to bless him in his work,” Metropolitan Theodosius said, “after which he said, ‘we won’t stop working until we come out winning.’”
While Metropolitan Theodosius said that the sight of filled and partially filled body bags was “most disturbing,” he was reassured by the “selfless and charitable ministry being carried out by the emergency teams.”
“In the midst of a war zone brought about by pure evil, pure hatred, the workers were living proof that mankind is, by nature, good, that love is indeed greater than hatred, no matter how diabolical,” Metropolitan Theodosius said. “Some had taken personal time off from their jobs, without pay, to perform this work of pure charity, of pure love, for the sake of those they had never even met.”
“Charity and love are synonymous,” Metropolitan Theodosius concluded. “And where charity and love prevail, Christ prevails, reminding us as I was reminded this afternoon, that the words we chant on Holy Pascha—‘Receive the light from the Light which is never overcome by darkness’—can indeed bring hope and comfort, even in a war zone, even at Ground Zero.”