Gordon MacDonald has been pastor of churches in suburban Boston and in New York City. He has written books on the nature of ministry in the modern world—including Ordering Your Private World (Nelson). But he experienced a new dimension to ministry when he and his wife, Gail, were given security clearances to join the Salvation Army in caring for the people removing debris and bodies after the terrorist attack on New York City. The following are journal excerpts from their last few days there.
One young police officer approached Gail and began to tell her that he had worked in the Trade Towers for some time and that it would have been easy for him to have been there at the time of the disaster. She asked him if he's pondered the notion that God may have spared his life for a reason.
He clearly understood that.
He went on to tell her that life as a policeman was terribly discouraging; before coming into the site yesterday, he dealt with four gang murders in another part of the city. She asked him what he really wanted to do.
"Become a teacher" was his answer. She encouraged him to think about the possibility that this was a "call."
Some of his buddies came to get him because it was time to go into the pit. He asked them for a few minutes and turned back to Gail and asked her for her name. He wanted to come back and talk some more. She prayed for him and sent him off.
Many men are coming to us with blistered hands and terribly sore feet. The only thing that seems to take the smells of the pit off the hands of workers is alcohol, and Gail and the other Salvation Army workers spent a lot of time washing hands with alcohol and then rubbing in hand cream. Eyes are terribly bloodshot and sore from impurities in the air. So they wash out eyes. As Gail said, "I'm learning how to do a lot of new things."
Father matthew, my Franciscan friend, stops by our site often now. Late in the day, we met inside the pit just feet away from the bucket brigades. He looked absolutely spent, and I realized that the unmarried clergy of the Catholic tradition don't have the companionship that I have with Gail.
I said, "Father, you look drained. You are praying for everyone. Who's praying for you?" He looked at me as if the question had never been asked before. I saw tears. So I said, "How about one of the blessings you've been giving everyone else?" He nodded, and I gave it to him. He's been giving the last rites to body parts.
I spent a large part of my day in the pit with buckets of water. There is a well-coordinated effort now going on. The men move in, clear out the manageable debris.
Then suddenly the shout goes up for a dog to sniff out a body. The dog comes in with little sock-like pads on the paws, jumps around, and finally locates what everyone smelled.
Men go to their knees and gently uncover the final debris and remove what only faintly appears to be a body or, more likely, a part. It is put in a body bag and evacuated to the morgue.
As I talk to and pray for firefighters, it suddenly occurs to me that I have not touched a man whose shoulders aren't enormous. They are, for the most part, tough men. But they have deep hearts.
One firefighter said to me, "My sister is a real Christian. And she's been on my back because I've backslidden. This thing has really wakened me up. I've got to stop the backsliding."
I suggested we could put a stop to the backsliding right then and there. He thought that was a great idea, so I prayed, "Help my friend, John, to cut out the backsliding. Give him a new heart; help him to make you proud."
He wept and was so grateful—and headed for the pit.
We are very mindful of the growing threat of disease. No one knows what germs are now in the air, how bad the air might be for our lungs. The smell of death has really settled in now, and we occasionally get terrible waves of it. But somehow, even though we are cautious, we care less for our own safety and more for bringing Jesus' love to these wonderful men and women.
Gail and I talked about the phrase in 2 Corinthians 2 that speaks of "the smell of death" and "the fragrance of life." Now we know what death smells like. That passage will no longer be an abstract thought.
Late in the evening I sat down (for the first time, I think) with two police officers, one a man, the other a woman.
"What's your world like?" I asked.
Both bit their lips and looked at each other. "It's more than we ever thought we'd face." And then, "But you know what keeps us going? It's how thankful everybody is. People keep thanking us, cheering us on. Everyone asks, 'Need a drink?' And everyone does exactly what we ask them do to."
They seemed amazed by this.
There is a growing resignation to the fact that there will be no more survivors. Many of the firefighters and police are finally getting a day's rest. Those from other parts of the country are beginning to head back home. Many of them simply dump the tools and materials they've been using at the first convenient place. There are shovels, respirators, gloves, and boots all over the place. We are forever stacking these things at the rubbish point so that the sanitation people can truck them out. All of it is considered contaminated.
I had a good conversation with a firefighter who was leading a team in the pit. He said that there were several fires still burning in the basements of the towers, and every time they get a "breath" of air, they flare back into flame. It creates a very dangerous situation for those men who go into the little passageways in the rubble, seeking bodies. Still they go. We said a prayer together for their safety.
Later in the night, I wandered over to the first-line medical tent, which is staffed by military personnel who are schooled in handling battlefield casualties. The head of the team, a physician, and I got into an interesting conversation.
He was scared for the men in the pit, he said, because he knew what was coming "downstream." He predicted an unusual spike in the suicide rate and a serious outbreak of manic depression: "These firefighters in New York are more tightly bound to one another than at any place in the country. Almost every one of them has had his life saved by someone else in his company. … It creates an incredible bond. Many of the men will be unable to live with these losses at the WTC. It's going to take an unspeakable toll on them."
I think I can already see the evidence of what he is saying. The number of men coming in with headaches is increasing. The despair is very clear in their eyes. We see more and more of them walking slowly out of the pit and finding places to sit alone, where they simply stare out in space. Men ask for cigarettes and often admit that they don't ordinarily smoke. But they want to smoke now, simply to keep their nerves under control.
One firefighter talked with me during the night, and when I asked him if he had buddies in the rubble, he said, "Yeah, 14 of them." He said that they'd all been in the midst of a shift change when the first plane hit, and everyone grabbed a coat and started down the block toward the WTC. They never looked back as they charged into one of the buildings.
His vivid and emotional description reminded me of a time in my childhood when there was a missionary fervor not unlike that of the firemen. Missionaries, following this kind of conviction, went out to other parts of the world as the men went into the building.
Sam, another man who wanted to talk, was actually older than me (perhaps the first man I've talked to who wasn't younger). He came by for some water and ended up talking.
"What are you doing in there?" I asked.
"I'm a climber," he said.
What he meant is that he specializes in crawling into small spaces deep in the rubble to see what he can find. It occurred to me that he had about as much courage as any man I've met all week.
"I came all the way from Florida and represent the senior citizens." Laughter.
I prayed for him: that God would continually bring him up out of the pit, as the Psalmist had once said. In this case the prayer was literal.
There is an abundance of good stories—really good stories. There is a man at our corner whose job it is to record the trucks as they leave the pit with their load of rubble. He is from Jamaica, and he has one of the most radiant smiles I've ever seen. He brings a kind of spiritual sunshine to the entire intersection.
I watch him—with his red, white, and blue hard hat—talking to each truck driver as they wait their turn to go in and get a load. He brightens men up. In the midst of all those smells, the dust, the clashing sounds, he brings a civilizing influence to the moment.
Occasionally I go out to where he stands and bring him some water.
At other times, he comes over and chats with us. We always laugh when we engage.
I said to him last night, "You're a follower of the Lord, aren't you?"
He gave me an enthusiastic "Yes! Jesus is with me all the time!"
When I offered to pray for him, he nodded vigorously. So I prayed, "Lord, you've given my friend a beautiful face and the gift of cheer. Keep him safe among those trucks. And make every person he deals with feel the love of Christ through him, even if they don't know his name."
Somehow this guy represents to me the quintessential picture of the ideal follower of Christ: out in the middle of the chaos, doing his job, pressing a bit of joy into a wild situation.
All night long the workers stream by, most often in groups of two or three. They stop to see what we can offer that will help. Gail and the other women have arranged the various salves and ointments that will treat blisters (every man has them). We have fresh gloves, kneepads, clean tee shirts, and antacid.
Interestingly enough, the thing we cannot get but need as much as anything is shoe inserts. The rubble is often hot, and the feet of the workers become very painful. We just feel terrible when we have to tell men that there are no inserts anywhere.
When workers approach our station, one of the things I like to say is, "We can give you something to drink, something to eat, something to wear, and we can also give you a blessing if you want." Most men and women look at me and say that a blessing would be real nice.
We have [a] challenge of creating order at our Salvation Army station. When we got there today, Gail found all the medical supplies in disarray. Some of the folks on the other shifts are simply not given to arranging things (putting them in their proper place or sorting them out when they are delivered). We have scores and scores of medical and medicinal products: everything from toothbrushes and solutions for contacts to aspirin, Pepto-Bismol, and ointments for blisters.
On every shift Gail takes it upon herself to sort and stash everything in its proper place. Her philosophy, she keeps telling me, is that we have to create places of order in the center of our worlds—a return to Eden, she calls it—so that our attitudes and demeanor will be orderly.
A New York policewoman, Regina, came to the station seeking some hand lotion. After Gail had helped her wash her hands, she rubbed lotion into them. It reminded me of the woman who cleaned Jesus' feet with her tears and perfume.
While this was happening, I asked Regina how she was doing. Her face lit up, and she said she was just fine.
I said, "Now, come on, what makes it possible for you to be so fine?"
She said, "This!" And with that she opened up her police jacket and showed me a Sony CD Walkman harnessed to her side. Then she opened up the lid because she wanted me to see the name of the CD. It was full of Christian praise choruses. Then she lifted the flap on a large pocket in her pants and pulled out a small Zondervan Bible. "Can't miss being anything but fine when I have those two things," she said quite confidently.
Somehow this struck me as wonderfully funny: this cheerful policewoman with a big pistol strapped to her side, a Walkman full of praise choruses strapped to the other side, and a Bible in her pants pocket, the one where police ordinarily carry their wallet for giving out tickets.
"So you're a sister," I said.
She came back, "Yep, and proud of it."
I keep remembering Annie Dillard's words: "It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church. We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to the pew. For the sleeping God may awake some day and take offenses, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return."
One of the finest Salvation Army officers I've met this week is Molly Shotzberger. She's in charge of the counseling over at the morgue. She first got her experience in this "business" after the TWA 800 crash. She's an expert in crisis counseling. Molly is both tough and tender. She described to me what life is like at the morgue as they bring in body parts.
Each time they ascertain that they have evidence that they're handling a police officer or a firefighter, everyone in the morgue stops what they are doing. The body bag is wrapped in a flag while everyone stands at attention and salutes.
I have learned so much from the marvelous dedication of the Salvation Army officers. I don't want to lionize them, but the fact is that they have a simple and powerful understanding of service. More than any group I have ever known, they seem to understand the real bandwidth of Christian love: that it starts with selfless service and goes on to a proclamation of the gospel.
Up at what the Army calls Site One is a feeding station that can turn out 1,000 hot meals per hour. Over at the morgue they are counseling distressed people who have to work with the gruesome results of death. At canteens and stations like ours, they are pouring coffee, getting out messages of assurance to the loved ones of workers, and finding cots for the exhausted. And always, whenever appropriate, they provide a word of hope and a prayer for strength. Occasionally, they lead a person to Jesus Christ.
Tonight was the first time we did not have to walk a long way out of the disaster area to our car. An ATV came by delivering ice, and the driver volunteered to drive us out. We sat on the tailgate of the ATV and left the floodlit scene of the rubble.
"We've lived 12 straight days in abnormality," I said to Gail. "What's it going to be like to get back home where things are so quiet?"
Over and over again, I've thought of T.S. Eliot's marvelous words: "Who is the third who walks always beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together, / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you."
We know who that One is.
On the next-to-last day we were in the pit, I was walking (I forget to where) in the street where there is a spaghetti-like maze of fire-hoses and utility lines. People were rushing back and forth all over the place. Suddenly a firefighter called out my name.
"Hey, Gordon," he yelled. Since my name is written in bold letters on the peak of my hard hat, I'm not difficult to spot.
He came over to where I was and said, "Remember me? I'm Ken. You prayed for me the other day. I wanted you to know the prayer has been working. I'm okay!"
As we embraced in that special manly way, my cheek brushed his, and I could feel the sweat and the grittiness of the dust and dirt on his skin. Perhaps at another time I might have recoiled from this. But not in this hour. I felt proud to share his smudges.
I whispered a blessing into his ear as we stood there in the middle of the street, and then we parted.
Gordon MacDonald is a former pastor in New York City and Lexington, Massachusetts. He is author of Mid-Course Correction: Re-Ordering Your Private World for the Second Half of Life (Nelson, 2000).
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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In "Where Was God on 9/11?" Phillip Yancey reflects on the terrorist attacks. He visited ground zero with Gordon MacDonald.
MacDonald is editor-at-large for Christianity Today sister publication, Leadership.
Other Christianity Today dispatches from New York City include:
Day of Terror, Day of Grace | In the wake of fatal attacks killing thousands, Christians steer America toward prayer, service, and reconciliation. (Sept. 25, 2001)
Where I Minister, Grace Abounds Over Sin | At Ground Zero, a New York pastor becomes a symbol that God is present and available. (Sept. 24, 2001)
The End of the World (Trade Center) | Dispatches from out of the dust. (Sept. 19, 2001)
'Is That Thunder?' | With metal cracking at the World Trade Center, New York pastors cry out to God. (Sept. 14, 2001)
In the Belly of the Beast | Christians, calling terrorist attack "satanically brilliant," minister at epicenter of World Trade disaster. (Sept. 12, 2001)
Christianity Today essays and analysis following September 11 include:
Rally Round the Flag | America may not be God's chosen nation, but it does have a mission that churches can support. (Nov. 7, 2001)
Wake-up Call | If September 11 was a divine warning, it's God's people who are being warned. (Nov. 5, 2001)
Judgment Day | God promised that calamity would follow disobedience. So why are we quick to dismiss it as a reason for the September 11 attacks? (Sept. 25, 2001)
Now What? | A Christian response to religious terrorism. (Sept. 21, 2001)
To Embrace the Enemy | Is reconciliation possible in the wake of such evil? (Sept. 21, 2001)
After the Grave in the Air | True reconciliation comes not by ignoring justice nor by putting justice first, but by unconditional embrace. (Sept. 21, 2001)
Taking It Personally | What do we do with all this anger? (Sept. 14, 2001)
A Wake-Up Call to Become Global Christians | The deadly attacks on America will provoke many responses, but Christians are commanded to love our neighbors. (Sept. 12, 2001)
God's Message in the Language of Events | In the face of evil, we must focus on keeping our hearts right. (Sept. 11, 2001)above all else.
When Sin Reigns | An event like this shows us what humans are capable of becoming—both as children of darkness and of light. (Sept. 13, 2001)
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