Rebuilding New York: Women at Ground Zero

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–As she was comforting firefighters, police, and rescue workers at Ground Zero, the Rev. Jean Smith’s cell phone rang. "Excuse me ma’am, but are you the lady who blesses the dogs?"

The call came Sept. 13, and Smith had been working as a pastoral counselor nonstop for three days. Yet she paused for only a moment and then quickly replied, "Yes, I am the lady who blesses the dogs."

An Episcopalian priest, Smith spent hours and hours at the Seaman’s Church Institute on Water Street, at the foot of Manhattan, and at the nearby Episcopal Grace Church situated blocks away from the site. As she walked among the rubble and ruin attempting to comfort those in need, Smith, port chaplain and executive director of the Seaman’s Church Institute in Newark, N.J., found herself granting all sorts of unusual requests.

Smith said the working dogs, wearing steel-toed boots like their handlers, nearly went crazy from the frustration, heat and the chaos at the site. The dogs found almost no one alive and, like their handlers, they were desolate. Desperate for a talisman or a prayer from a chaplain, trainers sought out Smith and she responded.

Everyone, she said, needed to be "touched, helped and comforted."

A slight woman in her early 50s, with delicate features and large blue eyes, Smith was covered in ash, debris and fear during those first days, yet she says she was in turn comforted by other clergy and volunteers, and she managed to continue.

Grace Church, adjacent to Ground Zero, was kept open as a sanctuary, and rescue workers and dogs lined up to enter. Often both lay on the cool marble floor, staring up at the stained glass windows. Smith, wearing street clothes, a clerical collar and a large purple cross given to her by a woman in Brazil, walked among them blessing them and from the pulpit offered prayer in her rich soprano voice.

In the First Days, People Were Not Ready to Hear the Word ‘Death’

"We pray for those we love and see no longer," she said. She did not use the word "death," she noted later, because in those first days after the attack "people were not ready to hear that more than 3,000 had perished."

As for the animals, the minister drew on the blessings of animals during the feasts of St. Francis. She placed her hands on the dogs, stroked them and prayed:

"God, you have blessed us through your creation of our companions: the birds of the air, the fish of the seas and our four-legged friends. Now we ask your special blessing upon (the dog’s name) who serves here with his master in this effort of rescue and relief."

Smith, coordinator of Ground Zero emergency efforts for her own church, Trinity Church in Princeton, N.J., has traveled around the world with the Seaman’s Church Institute, a worldwide resource that provides legal research, education, advocacy and assistance on behalf of seafarers’ rights. She also has lived in cities from Paris to Tokyo and has years of experience under her collar working with people of different religions and cultures.

‘Mother, Please Bless This Ash–That’s All There Is’

The call to bless the rescue animals is but one example of how the rescue workers turned to Smith for something–anything–to help them psychologically and spiritually cope with the disaster.

One day, as Smith stood in the wreckage, a man noticed her clerical collar, dark with grime, and approached her. Trembling, he held out a handful of the ash that lay in mountains and drifts at the site.

"Mother, will you bless this?" he asked "So I said a prayer over the ash in his hand," said Smith, adding that people were desperate to find victims, arrange for last rites and bury the bodies even though only ash remained.

"No one wanted to say what we were thinking: We are standing in a space consecrated with the dead."

Speech Pathologist, She Was Drawn to Personal Work With Clients

And she has boarded sea vessels to give prayers and blessings and to counsel mariners through her duties at the nondenominational Seaman’s Church Institute. She currently sails to ports in North and South America.

The Rev. Jean SmithShe grew up on a farm outside St. Louis and attended Northwestern University, where she studied to be a speech pathologist. She found that she was more drawn to the emotional and personal work with her clients, than the clinical aspects of therapy. She attended the Divinity School of the Pacific in San Francisco. She moved to New Jersey and rose through the ranks from a part-time clergy member to a senior minister and chaplain.

Smith was ordained in 1980, only three years after women were granted the right to wear the collar in the Episcopalian Church. Women undertake the same duties as a priest, a masculine title, but typically are not called priests. Women clergy are usually referred to as mother. She joined the Seaman’s Church Institute in 1990.

Smith, a minister for 21 years, and her husband, an advertising executive, now make their home in Princeton. Her daughter is a Florida-based midwife, her son, a Connecticut psychologist.

Throughout the days after the attack, Smith was faced with many questions from the fire department workers from all religions, she said, noting that Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox workers were more prevalent than others.

"They wanted to know what would happen to the souls of the dead if their bodies weren’t found," she said, noting that under the Roman Catholic and Christian Orthodox belief systems, a body must be buried in order to arise on resurrection day and to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Firefighters, search and rescue workers and police officers sought out Smith and asked: "Mother, where in God’s Kingdom are the dead? What if we can’t find them?" Smith recounted.

Where Was Merciful, All-Powerful God in the Midst of the Disaster?

"I soothed them and prayed with them, but I was tentative with answering and suggested that they go to their own priests about these things–as the answers to these questions are so rooted in tradition, especially in the Roman Catholic Church."

And people were seeking answers, especially to questions such as: "How could a moral and all-powerful God allow this to happen?" and "Where was God now in the midst of this disaster?"

Taking a deep breath, Smith recalled her reply: "God was in our midst in the face of tragedy. Did evil overtake us that day? Indeed, evil won, but God suffers with us and you only had to look around at the site to know his presence," she says, her voice clear and strong."

Yet, Smith struggled herself when she was preparing a sermon for the following Sunday.

"My sense was initially that the shock and outrage was so great that there wasn’t a clear message to preach," said Smith. She found the answer was to provide accurate information about Islam, in order to inform and reassure their parishes. Yes, she said, religion did play a role in the terror, but she called it a perversion of Islam.

Along with other religious leaders from other faiths, Smith offered prayer at the memorial service at Madison Square Garden in September attended by thousands and representing all denominations of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. She recited Psalm 121 that for her means that she had no easy answers to why evil triumphed on Sept. 11, but that God would prevail through love and tolerance and understanding.

"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help," she intoned as all joined her in the hope that a deity–regardless of the faith held by those seeking solace–could ease the suffering of those still living.

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Maya Dollarhide is a free-lance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has written for, New York magazine, and the Religion News Service. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.