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“Food, clothes…and a blessing”

BY GORDON MACDONALD –
LEADERSHIP Journal
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION

Author and editor Gordon MacDonald volunteered with Salvation Army emergency services at ground zero in New York City; this concludes a two-part series.

20 September 2001

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 my wife, Gail.

I said to him, “Father, you looked drained. You’re 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 to everyone else?” He nodded, and I gave it to him.

As I talk to and pray for firefighters, it occurs to me that I have not touched a man whose shoulders aren’t enormous; I’ve found they have deep hearts as well.

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 then and there. He agreed, 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 then he headed for the pit.

21 September 2001

One of our teammates for the night shift is Sarah who is on a church staff in Michigan. She organized 47 people from her church, convinced a bus company to donate a bus for a week, and brought them all to NYC with the hope that they could find a way to serve Jesus in the disaster. They have been unloading material at the Salvation Army HQ for the past week. She was thrilled to get into the crash site and work at our station. We have seen some powerful followers of the Lord like Sarah. This mess brings the best out in them.

When relief 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.

22 September 2001

A couple came up the street and suddenly stopped. They were seeing the WTC wreckage for the first time. The man was at least 6’6.” He stared for a few minutes and then began to cry. The sheer horror of this view broke him. Another man just behind them chimed into the conversation. “All of us down in this area,” he said, “navigate by the trade towers. Everything is located in relationship to them. So we’re simply disoriented.”

It’s a great sermon illustration, I suppose. Life and its direction have been defined in part by the trade towers. And now that fixed point is gone people must find a new ‘fixed point.’ I guess the significance of trusting Jesus is that one has a navigational point for reality that is indestructible.

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.”

I have learned so much from the marvelous dedication of the Salvation Army officers. I don’t want to lionize them, but 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. They are less preachers and more doers. Yes, they have their internal politics and, yes, sometimes their military command structures seem a tad cumbersome. But they have a fire in them that makes them willing to do anything for Christ’s cause.

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 remains of the dead. At canteens and stations, 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.

24 September 2001

I grew up in a faith tradition that seemed to take the dimmest and the most pessimistic view of humanity. I still hear those kind of voices in some parts of our Christian movement. They are heard condemning, accusing, and mocking those whose positions and perspectives diverge from ours. They embarrass me.

I wish they would stand down and become quiet before the Lord. We do not need their constant carping at society. They have misunderstood the genius of bridge-building, of quietly serving and loving as the primary way of gaining access to another person’s heart and mind.

The pit has been my most unforgettable “market-place.” I’ve seen so many good things about authentic men and women. Their love and loyalty for one another. Their ability to work countless hours without any expectation of pay. Their humor under fire as well as their tears. I am grateful to say–so very, very grateful–that I also sensed the powerful presence of Jesus there. And that will mark me until the end of my life.

Read Part 1 — “Army insignia pure gold”

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