A Priest’s Search At Ground Zero

In the days just after Sept. 11, Jim Martin searched for God in the wreckage and suffering of Ground Zero. For some, and maybe even for many, his was a most unlikely mission. But, he says, it was successful-far more than he would have imagined.

Jim Martin is a 41-year-old writer, magazine editor and Roman Catholic priest who worked with the men and women of Ground Zero beginning last Sept. 13, the day before the President famously visited the site and threw his arms around New York’s firefighters. Jim is a friend of mine, and the author of a wonderful memoir chronicling his transition from Manhattan yuppie to Jesuit priest: In Good Company. Jim’s years of training before ordination brought him to places of suffering he could not have imagined when he was crunching numbers for General Electric and living the life of a young Manhattanite in the mid-1980′s. He bathed and tended to the sick and suffering of Haiti, and he writes candidly of how these terrible sights frightened and sickened him at first.

And on Sept. 13, an even more frightful scene awaited as a police car took him from a hospital, where his services weren’t needed, to Ground Zero, where, it was thought, they would be. By the time he left for good in late September, he wasn’t sure precisely who had ministered to whom.

“I had never worked with firefighters or police officers and rescue personnel before,” he said. “That culture was totally new. I know this will sound banal, but I remember standing next to a firefighter-and here I was the, quote, official Christian-and I was standing next to people whose jobs required them to sacrifice themselves at a moment’s notice. Here were people who would give their lives for other people, which is at the heart of the Christian message. They put me to shame. A news reporter asked me what I said to inspire them. It sounds like a pat answer, but I said, ‘They inspire me. They’re incredible.’”

Father Martin has written a small book about his work at the site, Searching for God at Ground Zero . It’s published by Sheed & Ward, and all proceeds will be donated to 9/11 charities benefiting the families of firefighters, cops and other rescue workers. The book is, in essence, a journal of Jim’s ministry to (and from) the heroes of 9/11, the “other-directed, naturally generous, naturally kind” people whose charity and love led him to write, in Kennedy-at-Berlin style, “if any still doubt the presence of God in the world, let them come to the World Trade Center.”

“Most people,” Father Martin said, “saw only the Good Friday part of Sept. 11. I and others were privileged to see the Easter Sunday part. In this place of enormous suffering and desperation and sadness came intimations of new life, through great works of charity.”

Weeks after the attacks, the media reported an upsurge in church attendance, leading to speculation that this catastrophe would inspire Americans to reflect on their lives and to reacquaint themselves with the rituals of religion. Time passed, and researchers soon found that soul-searching and reflection quickly gave way to the resumed worship of consumption and fame-much to the relief, no doubt, of the nation’s taste-setters. Father Martin wasn’t surprised to hear that for some, anyway, spirituality was just another fall fashion. But, he said, people at least were asking the right questions, searching for the right answers. “These were questions that are very basic: What does it mean to be human? Who is God? What is the meaning of suffering? People were asking those questions. The key point is whether those questions will be brushed aside now that some of those feelings of sadness and shock fade.”

In one of the more memorable scenes in Father Martin’s book, he describes the sight of rescue workers gathering in the main dining room of a large pleasure boat, one of several vessels pressed into service to help feed the army that was picking through the wreckage at Ground Zero. “It is a strangely beautiful sight,” Father Martin writes, “and I am surprised to be reminded of a phrase from my theology studies. Here, I think, is a powerful image of the Kingdom of God. It’s odd to think of something like this in a place of such suffering and misery, but the image is unavoidable for me. Here is everyone eating together, working together, talking with one another … a breaking of bread in the spirit of sacrifice and remembrance. At the very least, the room seems suffused with the presence of God.”

A retired police officer, observing the scene, tells Father Martin, “It’s the work of the Spirit.”

After their meal, they left the boat, and Father Martin’s eyes caught the name of the vessel, printed in big letters: Spirit Cruise .