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Stories: Volunteer
Collective Resonance at Ground Zero

Martin Cowart

Food Coordinator, St. Paul’s Chapel Relief Effort

September 2001-June 2002

Martin Cowart got a phone call on September 12, 2001 from his cousin, a program administrator at St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan. Courtney Cowart and several others, wanted to use the tiny chapel, one of the only buildings unscathed from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, as a haven to care for the workers searching for survivors of the disaster. Food and a safe place to sleep were primary necessities as the brave men and women worked in shifts twenty-four hours a day. Martin, a former restaurateur, was asked to help organize the food service. On that day his world changed.

It was a frightening challenge for me. I mean, I ran a restaurant and I came in here and this was chaos. There were tons of debris…it was like being in a war zone. The health department had shut down the food operation on the sidewalk. There was no kitchen at St. Paul’s Chapel. We didn’t know what that was even going to look like. We were just trying to help people meet the immediate needs, really. Because, like I said, they put barbeque grills on the sidewalk and there were people there to eat the hot food so they were feeding them…which they really, really needed.

That’s why they called me in and here I’m thinking they gave me this responsibility to make sure we had hot food but don’t have a kitchen and the health department said we can’t do it. So how do we get food back-doored in here?

I mean it was overwhelming. I had no idea… I don’t know how this was going to happen. You know I couldn’t find any health department officials to give me any answers to what they really wanted me to do, how they wanted me to work. And so finally I just called a friend of mine and said, “Meet me. I’m trying to put something together here, can you help me?”

So we got together and Courtney met me and we put our heads together and came up with, basically, a stragetic plan of how to do this. Then Harris called and said why don’t you just try to get some hamburgers and hot dogs together tomorrow for lunch and we all went from there. Let’s just get through tomorrow and see what happens.

And that stuck in my mind because yes, we can do that. That…I can just figure that out. And that changed my whole concept of how I ran that operation. Let’s just do that…do one piece at a time. Let’s don’t plan the whole world. Let’s meet the needs as they come in. And that’s how we began to operate. We began to… it was like discover, do, discover, do. This is what we did. It’s exactly what we did.

And we began to see and began to listen to one another. I didn’t have all the answers to how to make this work! Someone else might now how to work a [proofing box] better than me and you had to keep yourself open to seeing how the best way to work it, so the next day we got two hundred hot dogs and hamburgers. Health department said yes, you got that…. Then the following Saturday we were just running like smooth as silk, better than expected. We got it running. Sunday the whole thing fell apart. Nobody showed up. We had volunteers…volunteers didn’t show up. And I needed people. And all of a sudden, everything was like…what happened to all that energy? And now I’m sitting by myself trying to figure out how to get this food over there.

So that was another discovery. It’s not going to be ready. This is going to change every single second, and that’s something we had to get prepared for. One day the barricades would change, the rules would change, how to get the people in would change. The guards would change too, one day’d be the National Guard, then the state police. So we had to move into a flexibility as a group to just flow with that, whatever, was telling us what the needs were and what the rules were going to be to meet them. It took all of that group energy and thought. What it was was that no matter what changed, what the rules were, the common goal was to get these people some food, to get these people some food. To get these people a safe place to go. And with that in common, always in the center of the picture, people put down…the self-interest just fell away. People began to form, there was such an energy toward a common goal that was to take care of these people, the relief workers, in whatever way possible.

Somehow most of the groups clicked. They came from churches, organizations, businesses. We got twelve, sixteen people every twelve hours for twelve hours. A church would say we need twelve people to go to St. Paul’s. Sign up on the sign-up sheet. And some of them might be friends. Some of them might not be such good friends. Some might not even like each other. And it was amazing to me how the group dynamic had its own energy and personality. And everyone was unique, like snowflakes. You never know the real dynamics of the personal relationships in the group but those pieces are playing in there too. But what’s important is that when they came into St. Paul’s, they had a job to do. They put down whatever those dynamics were that were around the thing. There was a common goal. There was such an energy toward a common goal that was to take care of these people, the relief workers, in whatever way possible.

How this worked was these people would come and meet over at Duane Reade at eight o’clock in the morning every day and they would assemble there because we had to bring them through the barricades. We’d go over there and we’d meet them and then we’d have like a twenty minute talking session. We’d tell them who we were and what we were about and gave them some groundrules and talk a little bit about what they’d be doing that day.

And you could tell…they were like children in the first grade, you know, the first time? They’d look scared, not sure of what to do, and listening intently to make sure they didn’t make any mistakes. You could just see in their faces that they were the volunteers and they were on a mission and they’d gotten in…because you know, it was a privilege even to be in the building.

And so you were up front telling them all about the procedures for the day. And because I needed people specifically for food, I would say we need six people to do food, now who likes to do food? And so what we began to show them was this was going to be about your day here too. I mean, this is about your experience. And you could see the conscious… people began to move into it. They didn’t quite believe you at first, that this was going to be about their day. They thought they were going to be bossed around all day because they didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t know. They were just coming down to be volunteers at St. Paul’s Chapel. They didn’t know what that would look like. I think for most of them they felt it was going to be like being sheep because there was some resistance. And what we did was, as much as we possibly could, we opened the door for them to empower themselves to do whatever it is they felt they could do that day to help us better.

And at first, people were very uncomfortable with that. A lot of people were, you know, “I’ve never cooked breakfast before. I’ve never cooked breakfast for so many people before.” They said, “Well, how do you do it?” And I said, “Well, there’s eggs, and there’s a refrigerator, and there’s… So go figure it out.” And they looked a little startled, but what was amazing to me is that somebody would emerge from that. “I’m gonna stay with the cooking group”, someone would say.

So you’d get six people who would volunteer and say, “I can cook.” And I’d say, “Let’s get some guys in here, raise your hands…who can carry…?” and they’d say, “Oh, I can do that. I can do it.” And people would, sort of, “Okay, I’m ready”, and I’d get my six people and we’d go back and then we’d start going to work.

Sometimes there would be a person that was just a natural cook, or he or she thought they were! But people would sort of be a little scared of the fact that they were going to be let loose in a kitchen to run by themselves, although I almost always had one person working second to me to sort of manage the volunteers for that day who could come on a regular basis because I was pretty much caught up in those days with ordering and making sure the food came in, plates were here, and all the details. So it was great for me to have an assistant who was good at managing people. But they would kind of emerge and you would see a captain, somebody who was kind of in charge of the kitchen, and you’d see someone who kind of knew how to lay out the food, and, you know, presto, change-o, in a couple of hours they had formed a group that was working! Without direction! I was there, you know, enough to keep them out of trouble, but I’m washing pots, I’m doing dishes…

And they’d be CEO’s of corporations back there. You’d see all kinds of people back there. Once I had the dean of the cathedral back there washing pots! You know, they just put down… They weren’t bringing all that stuff with them. I mean, for a lot of people like the big shots who were used to being in these little roles of having to be responsible for making decisions to rule the world – their outside world – I think they sort of enjoyed coming into the walls and letting go of all that stuff and just being a regular person who just served coffee and who just let somebody else take charge. That was an interesting dynamic to me. What I saw was people of that ilk found that what mattered was not being important but belonging. It wasn’t about being important, or being the boss, or being in charge, it was about belonging to a group that was helping other people. It was totally human, it wasn’t about all the images we create. And it was around that energy that people were able to kind of give up their self-interest and do whatever it took to get the job done. You’d see people go through a transformation in twelve hours…a totally different person.

I saw it in people who would come in so unsure of themselves, so resistant to the whole operation, and by the time the twelve hours was over, they really saw something in themselves, the gift they had, and they were like so plugged in they wanted to come back and be a regular part of the operation. It was amazing. They got more out of it…which, I think we all, I mean I certainly did…than the people who were receiving it often did. Because they finally felt important. They felt they were able to give something.

And for me it was exactly the same thing. I began to see my self. It’s not about self-worth, I don’t think self-worth is the right word. Everything I’d done in my life seemed to converge into me having a sense in myself of knowing, clearly knowing, that this is why God made me. This is why I was put in this world. And that is what I think people are always searching for. Why am I here? That’s the common quest for men and women. Why did God put me here? Well, for me, in those moments, I actually began to see that I could do this. I realized this is why I’m here.

And I looked back on my life…talk about convergence! I could see my spiritual life and the [?] years coming into play and I could follow those…do what I need to do spiritually to do this kind of work.

Emotionally, too, the things in my past were coming into play. My work with people with AIDS and all of my friends who were dying of AIDS back in the AIDS crisis gave me the strength to deal with all the sorrow in it. Because for me, I felt the sorrow, but I felt a bigger sense of sorrow in the AIDS crisis than I felt in this, maybe because I kind of got conditioned by that crisis. And it was probably more personal. That was the tool I had from an emotional point of view to be able to stay in this place of huge human suffering.

My management skills as a banker, too. I think that was probably the key skill that I had, the technical skill, that allowed me to be able to work, to manage all these different people every day. I knew when I was a banker that I was a pretty good manager, but I never thought it would be… you know, when you’re in a pool of other good managers, or other managers, you kind of just take it as what you do. And then, of course, my knowledge of the restaurant business and my contacts there. Though really, there was very little cooking. There was very little relying on using my skills as a restaurateur. Mostly it was my knowledge of people in the industry and understanding of the basic safety precautions.

So, all of a sudden, all these things in my life that I had been, that had been sort of working for me, were like converged and I was like, wow, so this is how the lessons and this is why I got these tools. So now I was in a place I felt very confident I could put them to use and we could make this happen. That was the transformation.

And then having been in that spot and then sharing that with others in that space is when I began to realize that there is some magic in the fact that when you give like this, what comes back is something you can’t put a label on. I cannot put a label on it. I can’t tell you what that is. A guy asked me once, “How do you do it? How do you go down there every day? You must be a super human being to go down there every day and work in the pit.” I said, “Actually, it’s not like that at all. When I go into St. Paul’s Chapel it’s like being bathed in love. It’s the most loving, human…it’s the most real human…whole human place I’ve ever experienced.” And it’s hard to leave, it’s hard for all of us. And that’s what people got when they walked in that door. They could feel the energy. It was the letters on the walls, it…there was an energy in that space.

I think it’s unconditional love. When you find that all the differences between people just go away. They don’t disappear, they go away, because of the common call to help each other. To help something, to serve. I think serve is where it comes from…in service. Unconditional love and service. It just bursts through. Particularly in time of tragedy like that, it bursts through all those images of who you are. You’re not doing any workshops about it, you’re just going through it. It was really all of the human love and energy that poured into that place. Everybody had a complete sense of giving. Whoever, whatever had gifts to give. It didn’t matter if it was some kind of homemade quilt made by some people in the Appalachian Mountains that had some wonderful things with prayers on it or some kind of Japanese little ornaments that were made by kids in Japan or the greeting at the front door by the volunteer who was there that day, or the music. It was a complete sense of service and giving of people’s gifts to help other people. I mean the thing about the physical activities that happened was not that significant but what’s significant are the feelings and the energy that was created inside those walls. And the only way that can be expressed is really those stories about…stories, in some way…and that’s what I think the thing was about art and music because that’s the way people can express a feeling of love. I mean, unless you’ve been in love you can’t tell someone what love is. You try to write a poem, you can kind of put it in music, but none of it gets it until you get there. Then you can experience what it’s like bing in love and you say, “Oh, wow, this is really…!”

It was a feeling of wholeness. Total wholeness. It’s the only word I can use to describe it. Human…you know? Unfortunately the word love has been diluted by the greeting card companies. It felt like connection. Belonging. A sense of purpose. A certain sense of sharing. I’m having trouble finding the words now, and we couldn’t always find the words then, but we were sharing the same feelings, sharing the same sense of awareness, vibrancy. A real awareness. And it wasn’t about being happy. It was more of a feeling of joy than happiness. Because it wasn’t happy, it wasn’t a happy time. But joy…a sense of real joy in the little things.

What’s interesting, though, is that some people didn’t get it. Some people were afraid of it and in my limited view it would be those people who might have a real hard time letting go of control and who they were. They never really understood what it’s all about. And I don’t say that in judgment, I just say that’s my observation. Like there were people who came down in the very early days and were so enthusiastic about helping out. And it was fun in those days, it was exciting, you felt great. But as it began to become sort of a routine, everyday thing and there wasn’t sort of all this adrenaline rush about things and you really had to be present to listen to things and often it would be like you were just giving out free food and some began to say, you know, what’s the purpose of being down here anymore. Why are we doing this? And what it was is that it was all about them. The rush and excitement is what motivated them and when that was gone, when the excitement of it went away, they didn’t see the need to do it anymore.

Whereas there were people who really connected, who began to see the need was more and more and more because the workers were getting tireder and tireder and they needed the help. These firemen who were down here thirty days on assignment, this was tough work for these guys. It didn’t get any easier in March than it was in October for these guys. They were down there, you know, finding people’s remains. These volunteers really got it.

And because it was so sad and you have to be there, you couldn’t just ignore that because it feels sorrowful. You have to just be present in that with other people. You know, if someone was telling you a story…a fireman was telling you what they’d seen on the floor. You just felt a sense of being present to listen to it. I mean, I didn’t have the answer. But being present, totally being present… When you were in there you knew you were in the moment, you were not anyplace else. That is one key. You knew you were in the moment. You weren’t thinking about what was or what was going to be. You knew you were right there.

You’d go somewhere like Eckerd’s drugstore and when you came back you could feel, you could just feel, the transition when you went in to St. Paul’s Chapel. It was a feeling of safety, a real sense of safety, of being safe. Right outside the churchyard was this mound of torn steel and burned bodies and inside these walls was…is… That’s what policemen, firemen said. I had a young policeman one day just grab me and say, “I feel so safe in here.” A real sense of safety and security.

You know, I never had an inner curiosity to go down to the pit. I didn’t have it then, I don’t know why. Some people did, some volunteers. They just wanted to get down to the pit, go down to see it. Maybe because I knew I could see it, that it was accessible, I never wanted to. I did go down several times because I had to, there were things I had to do, but I rarely went down. Because my job here…it would take my energy away to go down, it would take me to another place. And my responsibility was hospitality inside these walls of St. Paul’s Chapel. And food was a huge, huge task. It was where 95% of the money went of the operation because it was logistically extremely difficult. There was no storage facility so everything had to be shipped in fresh, kept maintained. Quantities were important, so backing up logistically where everything was coming in. So my mind was constantly thinking of the logistics of the food. That was the logistical, problem-solving thing that kept me occupied. That’s what kept my mind focused on some tangible “to do” projects like how do the next two hundred hamburgers get in? Because even though I had a system in place, it still needed constant attention because the rules would change. All of a sudden now we had a different way of getting the trucks through the barricades and so I had to always come on ready alert even though I had a system in place. It was what was constantly working in my head to balance the emotional piece of being present. I think I would take about as much being present as I could handle and then shift into what I’ve got to do to get the job done. I think that’s what people really needed when they worked there. They needed something they had to do. It was a different kind of leadership. It wasn’t like I want to control and dominate, like I wanted to lead this group. It never occurred to me, it only came to me like it did for the others. I was asked to do something. I had to take it. I had to obey. Okay, you’ve asked me to do this so I’ve got to take ownership and take accountability and responsibility.

And I think the piece for me, probably, was the discovery of what people can do. This is why I’ve taken this whole direction in my life, basically, to be a part of The Nine-Twelve Community. Prior to that, while I did things I thought people wanted and there was a need for them, there was always a self-motivating factor of how much money I was going to make doing it and how my life was going to be affected by it. How, you know, it was going to better me from a more material point of view. In this case, because I experienced what it could do for me in a non-material way - in a relationship with other people - because I experienced what that’s like, that changed my whole perspective to encompass more how I can serve others. Almost to the point where now I’m beginning to get concerned that I’m not taking enough accountability to manage my own finances. You wonder where’s the line.

Yeah, but it did show me that people can be this way. And if people can be this way – everybody has that in him – then there is hope and a sense of responsibility to try to get the world to work that way. I mean, I can’t think, “Well I, Martin Cowart, am going to change the world.” I can change myself and by this experience I can influence change. And I feel like that’s a real thing. I really can – I did – influence change. I did. I did earn my seat at the table. I did show my being effective…in being present and by using all those tools that I had…that I can influence positive change.

And under my leadership, in that place across the street, we created something that was very unique. It was the best…a world within a world. That’s the human beings next door to one of the most horrific things in the world. And by doing that I’ve experienced what it is I can…what we’re capable of…and what I’m capable of.

Martin has returned to a mortgage banking career and is enjoying every day. He and his colleagues from St. Paul’s Chapel have founded a nonprofit organization, The Nine-Twelve Community to sustain the spirit of service that emerged during their nine months at Ground Zero. Volunteers and site workers have gathered together to find their place in the longer term recovery effort and healing of lower Manhattan.

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