Sunday morning, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the purple doors of Old First Dutch Reformed Church were wide open for its memorial service just as they were in the days and weeks after September 11, 2001. And just like 10 years ago, there was an A-frame board on the sidewalk in front of the Carroll Street church with the words: "The church will be open for prayer and meditation until 5 p.m."
Inside, an unusually large crowd listened to 10-year-old Lector Frank Adams reading from the book of Exodus. Hanging from the walls of the church, with its imposing Neo-Gothic architecture, beautiful stained glass windows and a grand chandelier, were pieces of white newsprint, some readable, some blurry. The prayer sheets were created by visitors in the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks, when the church invited those who walked through its doors to write down their prayers.
What seemed like a typical Sunday service, with the singing of hymns and readings from Romans and Matthew, suddenly transitioned into a memorial when Reverend Daniel Meeter began his sermon.
"Let me tell you what you did 10 years ago," Rev. Meeter spoke directly to the crowd of over 200 people. "While paper and debris was raining down on this neighborhood some of you knew right away that you had to open the doors of the church for sanctuary.”
He continued: "People came and sat looking for safety and shelter because you opened the door. You hosted them. You gave them music, candles and hung up sheets of newsprint and put out markers."
While he spoke, I noticed a small boy a few pews ahead of me playing with a toy fire truck, which somehow seemed appropriate for 343 firefighters died while responding to the World Trade Center attacks, including 12 firemen from Squad 1 on Union Street.
For Rev. Meeter, it was through the simple—and profound—act of opening its doors, that the church discovered its true mission: “To offer sanctuary to anyone needing help spiritually.”
Rev. Meeter urged those in attendance to read the prayers that were written on the hanging sheets 10 years ago.
"They are sacred and they are of you. Those are real prayers from real people in their real time of need," he said.
Indeed, many from Park Slope and elsewhere sought sanctuary in the church and wrote those prayers. Some of the writers were survivors who had just returned from downtown Manhattan. Others were waiting to hear that their relatives and friends were alive.
Some of the prayers, Rev. Meeter told the crowd, are for police and the fireman at Squad 1; prayers for the still missing and prayers for those who were digging through the rubble.
"There were prayers for Christians, Jews and Muslims. There were many prayers for peace. Few of the prayers are signed,” he told the rapt audience.
Later, he pointed out why some of the prayer sheets are damaged. "We stored them in the steeple and the tornado last year blew out a window and grabbed those sheets. Some of the words are blurred now," he said. "But they're like abstract water colors. Less realistic, more transcendent."
Rev. Meeter concluded his sermon with words about forgiveness.
”Make space for it,” he told the people in the pews. “Make another kind of sanctuary in the midst of sin and violence.
Congregant Pete Redell followed Rev. Meeter's sermon with a testimonial about a friend he lost in the 9/11 attacks. Scott J. O'Brien, a regional sales manager for Slam Dunk Networks, attended a conference at Window on the World, on the 107th floor of the North Tower on September 11. O'Brien lived in Park Slope for 13 years and was married to Kelly Hayes, a science teacher at New Voices Middle School. Redell reminisced about their annual Father's Day camping trips with their kids and all the fun the two families had together.
"In the weeks after 9/11 we hoped to find him. I painted Kelly's hallway while we waited. I must have painted that wall three times," Redell recalled. "I experienced sorrow, sadness, anger and a desire to help. After a week of waiting, we concluded he wasn't coming back."
Redell spoke about the feeling of togetherness among neighbors that characterized the weeks after the tragedy.
"The intensity was so profound. One day my wife sat on a stoop and cried and a complete stranger sat down to console her," he said. "This is how it should always be. People caring for others."
Redell described the memorial that was held for O’Brien at Old First: "The church was filled. There was a combination of passages from the Bible and songs by the Grateful Dead. The spirituality of that service still fills me today."
After this Sunday's service there was coffee and snacks in the church’s Narthex, not far from the open purple doors. I spoke with Stacy Leigh, a church member about what she hoped to experience when she came to church today.
"I was hoping to comfort others. You can see I brought my tissues," Leigh said. "I wanted to pay attention and look for those who needed to express their grief. I wanted to feel the wisdom of those around me."
Leigh was particularly moved by the reading of Threefold Litany during the service, which read: "Our hearts are heavy still, O God. We lost so much. The wound is open in our common life. Come to us; abide with us…”
Kelvin Spooner, the church's summer seminarian, was not at Old First 10 years ago, but was stirred by the stories told at the service. "The way this church kept its doors open for an entire week and let you in no matter who you were is evidence that sanctuary is very therapeutic for people," he said.
Rhoda Ingberman came to Sunday's service hoping to getting through a tough time. "It's a solemn day, you know it's going to be a tough. But I knew that it would be peaceful in here,” she said.
While others talked, drank coffee and ate homemade pineapple upside down cake, Rev. Meeter walked by holding a congregant’s baby girl.
"You discover your community on days like this. You get built up by spending time with people you love. It's a net gain,” he said.
I watched as he played with the little girl. "I am joyful now. Not in denial. We must remember. But there are new children,” he said, nodding at the baby in his arms. “We owe it to them to be joyful."