A Steeple In Hell

September 10th, 2015

As the 24/7 news cycle and the circling satellites bring more of the world to us every day, and more of the world’s reality becomes real to us, it becomes easier to become angry, to question, to blame. As the search for real answers becomes more difficult hopeful signs become more important.

As published in The Memphis Daily News, September 11, 2015, and in The Memphis News, September 12-18, 2015

St Pauls


Headed to my desk, I passed a photograph on the wall. I pass it several times every day, but when I typed 9/11 at the top of the page, the date this column would run in The Daily News, I realized what the column would be about:

That photograph of a famous church on an infamous day.

In 2002, I did some consulting work for the Episcopal Church and in September of that year I received a copy of the Church Pension Fund Annual Report. The theme was “the predictable and the unexpected” and the report began by recounting the beginning of what would have been a two-day meeting at the CPG New York offices.

The time was 9 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001.

On the report’s back cover was a photograph, one that moved me to reflect on loss, hope, and, ultimately, on faith. In what must seem a contradiction, I have found comfort in the terrible reality of that photograph.

The steeple of a centuries-old church rises above fire and ash, framed in a terrible light, sheltering survivors of senseless horror in its nave below, itself a survivor and a symbol.

The photograph is of St. Paul’s Chapel that afternoon. Built in 1776 on the corner of Broadway and Fulton – a block from Ground Zero – and now part of the parish of Trinity Church Wall Street, St. Paul’s is Manhattan’s oldest public building in continuous use. From George Washington’s post-inauguration worship there in 1789 to standing sentinel over a nation’s tragedy in 2001, St. Paul’s has been called the city’s “most exquisite keystone of national history” by The New York Times.

Since that day, we have blamed and invaded entire nations who were not responsible, condemned an entire religion for the insane actions of its fanatical fringes, and emboldened and enlarged if not enabled those fringes with our scorched earth response.

And we’ve become a holier-than-thou nation looking for a fight.

Any Crusader will tell you that claiming the high holy ground to trample Muslims in their own backyard has been a bad idea since at least the 13th century.

We will not bring them to Jesus, or to U.S. policy, by attempting to change entire cultures by force. We will turn the reasonable into radicals. That’s exactly what 9/11 did to us.

Maybe that steeple is something to look to before we do what we do to each other when we lose sight of it. Maybe it’s a reminder that killing anyone in God’s name is the ultimate oxymoron. Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s just something that survived against all odds.

With respect for whatever you believe, I offer this from the Book of Common Prayer that sits in every pew in St. Paul’s:

“This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be.”

I’m a Memphian, and an American, and I pray we’re ready for reason.


I'm a Memphian by Dan Conaway

If you don’t read it, I’ll read it to you.

The book is available in print online and all over town and now in audio online at Amazon, Audible and iTunes, read by the author – columns, comments and character references for a city filled with it and often absolutely full of it. Take a look or a listen.



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