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Cops and Burgers

Seeing order in chaos — and vice versa. New Science at work at St. Paul's

Volunteers barbecue food for rescue workers outside St. Paul's.

Lyndon Harris

In the first days of the relief efforts following 9/11/2001, volunteers barbecued food for rescue workers on the sidewalk outside St. Paul's.

This article appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of Spirituality & Health.

It shouldn’t surprise us when human organizations resemble other natural systems, when cityscapes begin to look like anthills. After all, we are all part of the same created order. But I was stunned to recognize that the relief ministry at St. Paul’s Chapel was a perfect rendition of a “self-organizing system” as I watched the NYPD and the Health Department duke it out over hamburgers.

In the new sciences of chaos and complexity, a self organizing system is a collection of random material entities that come together suddenly and begin to act as a single organism. These “complex systems” develop a remarkable adaptive capacity that allows them to shift on a dime in response to critical changes in their immediate environment. They also exhibit a paradoxical combination of order and freedom. Often there is a recognizable pattern to their behavior, but they are also capable of totally unpredictable conduct.

So these systems thrive at “the edge of chaos,” that fine line between their collective order and the freedom of their individual parts. If there is too much order in the system, then routinization, stagnation, and death will follow. If there is too much freedom, then anarchy, discord, and chaos result. Therefore, the critical life force within every complex natural system is this dynamic balance between order and freedom.

In times of crisis, human behavior takes on many of these characteristics. A random mix of dedicated people suddenly begins to organize itself into teams to deal with the emergency. Somehow these teams seem to be magically suited to the problems at hand, and creative solutions to Herculean tasks emerge. People find themselves working outside the box, breaking all the rules, but saving lives. Never have they known such rewarding work. But eventually and invariably, all that individual initiative and innovation runs smack into latent institutional authority, and the battle between freedom and order commences. And that’s exactly what happened all over Ground Zero, in the pit and at St. Paul’s.

The relief effort at St. Paul’s emerged spontaneously. While a crew was cleaning soot out of the chapel, the Seamen’s Church Institute on the east side of lower Manhattan opened its doors to feed the emergency workers. The General Theological seminary joined the team and began to organize volunteers for the effort. But they were too far from Ground Zero, so on Friday, September 14, they showed up with Weber grills in tow and started cooking hamburgers on the sidewalk outside St. Paul’s.

Before long the Weber grills proved inadequate. A couple of volunteers located a foundry, where they crafted huge stainless steel grills that cooked a hundred hamburgers simultaneously. Thanks to the individual ingenuity of a host of creative people, we soon had a full-blown “Barbecue on Broadway,” feeding hundreds of grateful emergency workers.

Then along came the forces of order: the Health Department. They had several legitimate concerns. First, we were grilling in the open air that was still full of soot and toxins. Second, we were using supplies donated by unknown individuals and church groups, which gave us no control over the quality of the food. The Health Department also had another beef. According to their digital thermometers, the hamburgers were too cold and the sandwiches were too warm.

So, about a week into the operation, the Health Department of the City of New York sent a team to assert control and shut us down. Unbeknownst to anyone, they started taking the burgers off the grill, throwing them into the garbage can and pouring lye on them. Little did they know that the Mobile Police Headquarters was parked right next to St. Paul’s, and soon a group of policemen had surrounded the Health Department team and quietly but forcefully walked them off the premises. Everyone cheered. What a historic moment! How often do the guardians of law and order reverse their role and stand up for reckless ingenuity?

Of course the Health Department came back about an hour later. I found myself trying to referee a pushing match on the steps of the chapel. Just when I thought it could get ugly, the cops again prevailed and the health team was escorted off the premises.

The long night, however, was not over. The next time, the State Department of Health sent a team armed with a citation from the mayor’s office. Anything with Rudy Giuliani’s imprimatur was like a message from God Himself. So, the cops stood at attention while the Health Department stripped the grills of their precious burgers. The Barbecue on Broadway was over.

But not for long! Almost instantaneously, the whole ministry spontaneously responded to this radical change in its environment. By noon on the next day, the food service was up and going again. How? Serendipitously, a restaurant owner in the neighborhood had lost his lease a few weeks earlier and was wondering what to do with his life. That same evening, his cousin, one of our colleagues in the relief ministry, approached him with a new culinary challenge. The next morning we had a licensed restaurateur in charge of our food service, who not only had contacts in the Health Department, but also knew the owners of some of the city’s best restaurants, who began donating meals. Overnight, we acquired a rating worthy of the best in Zagat’s.

Needless to say, the Health Department didn’t bother us again. But, like any innovative self-organized system, we at St. Paul’s tread the fine line between order and freedom that characterizes any creative work.

The Rev. Dr. Frederic B. Burnham holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University and a D.D. from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He has lectured widely and published numerous articles on the connections between science and religion.

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