The Not-So-Holy Trinity

Photo by Becky Garrison

An Occupy protester at the attempt to take the Trinity-owned lot.

For someone like me who covers Christian carnage for a living, Nick Pinto’s recent Village Voice article about the power grabs of current Trinity Church rector James Cooper, “More Money Than God,” sounded an all-too-familiar tune.

Put just about any priest in charge of Trinity Church, a historic Episcopal Church in Lower Manhattan with a net worth of approximately $1 billion due to their holdings as Trinity Real Estate; add to this mixture access to international religious and business leaders, a clergy compensation package valued at $1.3 million in 2010, and the relatively new purchase of a four-floor, $5.5 million-dollar townhouse in Soho to serve as the rectory; this elixir will transform most souls from holy to heretical.

In my book Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, I reported on a distressing clergy dynamic present during the post-9/11 recovery effort at Ground Zero. Unfortunately, this ungodly behavior is still evident in the events geared toward religious leaders that I’ve covered since 2001. Since Trinity was the only major feeding site near Ground Zero open to the media, the site became the go-to place for those looking to score a feed-the-firefighter-feel-good sound bite. Trinity TV contributed to the media buzz by shooting themselves at service with other artists commissioned to depict their relief efforts. (You can tell that the photos weren’t volunteers snapping pics, but often staged, professional photography deals that you can tell by looking at the dates were taken during the recovery effort.)

But winning my reward for the most odious 9/11-themed religious drek is The Little Chapel That Stood. This children’s book reminds our nation’s already traumatized youth that “Ground Zero smoldered dark and grim. Our hearts stood still, then we pitched in.” At first, I thought it was a twisted parody until I realized that the actual author was a child psychologist.

The plethora of museum-quality videos and books, jewelry, posters, audio cassettes, and other religious memorabilia available for purchase proved that at some point, people forgot the teachings of John 7:18 and sought their own glory rather than glorifying Christ through their works. This at-times crass merchandising by 9/11 ministries, which praised the dust and their deeds even before the debris had been cleared, reminded me of Jesus’ commands in Matthew 6:1–4, in which the disciples are told to do their deeds in secret without sounding the trumpets.

In a similar vein, The Rev. Lyndon Harris, the man dubbed by the media as “the 9/11 priest,” tried to launch a 9/11 charity that soon raised a number of red flags, which no one in Episcopal church circles or the mainstream media cared to address. Ten years later, an Associated Press article  finally pointed out a few glaring inconsistencies in his charity’s claims, such as the lack of an actual Garden of Forgiveness at Ground Zero. Also, as reported by the AP, tax records show that the charity has raised $200,000 and that the Episcopal priest paid himself $126,530 in salary and used $3,562 for dining expenses between 2005 and 2007.

When the Rev. James Cooper was appointed as the church’s rector in 2004, I heard rumblings that Trinity had cleaned house. They seemed to replace most of the staff who profited from 9/11 and reduced the size of the exhibit. However, I have yet to see any sign that Trinity Church has funneled any of the money raised from the gift shops or donations from visitors touring their museum toward any programs to assist the same first responders that they fed with the myriad of health and other problems they’ve faced once the site closed.

Unlike during the previous administration, when I was told by the press office that they did not want anyone from The Wittenburg Door covering their events, under the new leadership I was placed on the press list and allowed to grace their doors with the requisite press pass. When covering their annual Trinity Institute in 2009, where the theme was  sustainability, speaker David C. Korten, author of Agenda for a New Economy, cited the irony of launching a book that proposes to dismantle Wall Street while standing at Wall Street. But underneath the humor, Korten raised a critical question that echoed throughout this conference: “What purpose do we expect the economy to serve?” Citing Matthew 6:24, Korten reminded the audience: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

I saw this dichotomy in action on December 17, 2011, when Occupy Wall Street tried to occupy a vacant lot owned by Trinity Real Estate. I heard rumors that Trinity chose not to allow use of this space, citing safety concerns. But as they demonstrated after 9/11, they possess the resources to turn their chapel into a 24/7 rescue operation, if the resulting publicity meets their needs. Since this writing, for example, Trinity has leased the space to food truck vendors.

I spoke to Earl Koopercamp, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Manhattanville, member of Occupy Faith, and one of Trinity Church’s Transformational Fellows (i.e., a recipient of a study grant for social transformation) in my reporting for Geez magazine.

“In providing hospitality and charity, they’re not really getting involved with the fundamental justice questions. Listening and even saying ‘Occupy Wall Street has the right to its protests’ is excellent. But the question is, how do we transform society so the 1 percent doesn’t have all the voice and all the say anymore? Hopefully they can make those transactions peacefully and non-violently so that the 99 percent can live much more secure lives.”

Koopercamp, along with retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard and other clergy, was arrested during the attempt to occupy Trinity-owned Duarte Square. But he remains optimistic: “I’ve seen this transformation take place in some of the people I’ve least expected. The reception has just been very positive. Some very wealthy people get that something is wrong. This economic system did not fall down from heaven. It is not divinely ordained. We made it, we can remake it.”

As part of this remaking process, what if Trinity and other churches were required to function like other secular nonprofit organizations? Given the IRS’s lack of attention to those pastors who blatantly violate the separation of church and state by flaunting the melding of church and state, I doubt they will take American Atheists’ lawsuit against them seriously. But could faith-based monoliths continue to do as they pleased if they were no longer granted the special benefits afforded to houses of worship? For instance, if they were required to expose their finances, perhaps people could have a clearer view of whether they want to invest in this church’s ministry, or instead to throw their support behind a social justice 501(c)(3) or contribute to tax-exempt nonprofits that are more in line with their ideologies.

But for now, Trinity only answers to its God.

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).