The Myth of the Ground Zero Cross

gzcrossWhen I first heard that a 17-foot cross-like structure was discovered by a construction worker in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, I was too busy feeding first responders to pay any attention. (I recounted my experiences as a 9/11 volunteer in Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church),  I viewed the news that a cross somehow “miraculously” appeared at the recovery site with the same skepticism I had toward the story of how St. Paul’s Chapel “miraculously” remained standing despite its close proximity to the World Trade Center. The real miracles would have been if more people had been discovered buried alive or if this disaster had been averted in the first place. But 12 years later, this experience gave me a perspective on the “Ground Zero cross’”’s evolution from a found object that inspired some to a commercialized symbol of Americana Christianity worshipped by a few and ignored by most.

As they had a number of post 9/11 relics, from heart-shaped teddy bears donated by Jesus-loving women’s groups to victims’ shoes left behind, global media outlets in their quest for feel good soundbites perpetuated the myth-making surrounding the cross. Trinity Church Wall Street was the only ministry site in the area that allowed media to enter. And their own television crew joined in this media frenzy by documenting their recovery efforts at St. Paul’s Chapel, in videos that were available for sale while the recovery effort was still in progress.

Some clergy and 9/11 volunteers not affiliated with St. Paul’s Chapel tried to find novel ways to get attention to their work at the site. As I recounted in American Atheist (3rd Quarter, 2011) among the free-range chaplains circulating at the time was Father Brian Jordan, a Catholic Franciscan priest. Jordan seemed to be a man in search of a mission and in the Ground Zero cross, he found one. He succeeded in getting the cross to remain at Ground Zero, and conducted weekly services there, which were attended by Salvation Army volunteers, construction workers, and other non-uniformed personnel. Seldom would I see a first responder in attendance.

At one Easter season service opened to the public, I distinctly remember an individual handing out Ground Zero cross necklaces in the hopes that those present would spread the word and entice others to buy these wares. A few others were also trying to sell Ground Zero cross-related items though conversations about copyrighting the cross never came to fruition.

Once the recovery effort was deemed over in June 2002, some clergy explored ways to continue this spirit of service begun at the site, including the Rev. Lyndon Harris, the so-called 9/11 priest who was theoretically in charge of St. Paul’s Chapel. Despite a promising start, his endeavors eventually earned him the distinction of operating one of the worst post-9/11 charities.

Jordan, on the other hand, lacked Harris’s high profile and the media passed him by.  Jordan did succeed in having the Ground Zero cross moved next to St. Peter’s Church in Lower Manhattan. There this forgotten icon stood silently in full view for those who wished to capture a photograph. Those wishing to purchase Ground Zero cross jewelry can now frequent the gift shop at St. Paul’s chapel.

At this juncture, it’s uncertain if the 9/11 Museum’s Preview Center will sell Ground Zero cross items among their 9/11 memorabilia. That’s partly because the American Atheists challenged placing the Ground Zero cross in the museum, on the grounds that the inclusion of a Christian artifact violates the 14th amendment. Their requests to include a tribute to atheists who died that day was denied, and the judge ruled that the cross is a secular “artifact” that could be deemed museum-worthy. This despite the fact that the only reason this particular set of steel beams didn’t end up on a barge with other debris is because a construction worker and a priest deemed it to be of religious significance. For months, Jordan said Mass at the foot of this cross and then led a religious ceremony to mark the cross’ transfer from St. Peter’s Church to the museum site. As someone who has covered religion since 1994, I can attest that secular objects do not get treated in this fashion.

But in any case, none of the emails I still receive from 9/11 family groups mention the Ground Zero Cross or support for its inclusion the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. They are concerned instead with more pressing issues, such as health care for 9/11 first-responders, and the ongoing discovery of human remains during construction of the 9/11 Memorial. The cross may be just a random sighting of steel turned spiritual and invested with symbolic meaning by the faithful and atheists alike. But the myth-making in light of the tragedy of 9/11 is not surprising. As KtB founder Jeff Sharlet puts it in his 2012 book Sweet Heaven When I Die, “Rightly or wrongly we search for a whole whenever we find a hole in our lives.”

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).