Multiple award-winning, Triumph Over Terror, by Ground Zero Chaplain and Janice Hall Heck, recounts Ossler’s interactions with heartbroken victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Used by permission of Blackside Publishing.
Sweeper Man’s Hopeless Task
“I must lose myself in action, lest I whither in despair.” –Alfred Lord Tennyson
Soon after our introduction to St. Paul’s Chapel [where volunteers were housed], another volunteer offered to take us on an orientation tour of Ground Zero.
As I walked with about twenty other chaplains toward the smoky, smoldering, stories-high wreckage of buildings and souls, we passed a fatherly-looking figure pushing a long-handled broom. A dirty sweatshirt barely covered his protruding belly. White chalky ash shrouded his pant legs–the pulverized cement of the collapsed buildings intermingled with ashes of cremated bodies.
Engulfed in the stench of death, this man swept and pushed, swept and pushed at piles of dust-fine ash and dirt, twisted metal and broken glass, chunks of concrete, tangled wires, and papers blown from the demolished towers. Debris stretched as far as the eye could see, but Sweeper Man swept and pushed, swept and pushed.
To restore order to his street, one man faced the greatest physical and emotional challenge of his lifetime. He picked up his broom to do something, anything, no matter how small.
Swoosh, swoosh. Swoosh, swoosh. A symbol of hope. He pushed his long-handled broom slowly but steadily, shoving away the rubble and ash of shattered buildings and lives.
As our group of chaplains walked by on Sweeper Man’s newly created path, he stepped aside. We greeted him, and he nodded. After we passed him, I looked back. He leaned on his broom, lowered his head, and began to cry. In that overwhelming mess, he looked so forlorn trying to clear his patch of the city he loved. Seeing him weep over his broom broke my heart.
I walked back and embraced him. He grabbed onto me and sobbed on my shoulder. “I’m exhausted from trying to clean up this mess. It’s hopeless. Hopeless. Hopeless.”
I hugged him harder and complimented him on his nice, clean area, and how much I appreciated the time and effort he invested into clearing the trash and junk away. Before I moved back to the group of chaplains, I offered to share a prayer with him. He accepted, so we prayed together and asked God for strength in these terrible times.
Sweeper Man thanked me for the hug, the prayer, and the encouragement. After I turned to catch up to my group, he went back to work with his broom to make his path wider–sweeping, sweeping,
A tragedy of unspeakable proportions left his little corner of New York City totally trashed, but he persevered in his work.
Steady. Reliable. Crushed in spirit, but buoyed with enough encouragement to begin again, to take one more step, to push the broom one more time, to sweep away at the ruins threatening to bury all hope.
I was glad I’d turned back to acknowledge his pain. After all, that’s why I left home and journeyed to New York City: to bring a touch of God’s love to the brokenhearted.
I remembered something Henri Nouwen wrote in his book, The Wounded Healer. “One eye movement or one handshake can replace years of friendship when a man is in agony. Love not only last forever, it needs only a second to come about.”
Even though I may never see Sweeper Man again, for one moment in time, our lives connected, and God’s love touched us both. I’ll never forget him.
Sweeper Man reminded me of an important lesson that day: No matter the job, every single person who works in disaster cleanup is important and needs to be appreciated and recognized for their effort.