11 September 2011

off-topic: 9/11

US Navy photo (public domain)
Today our grown-up congregation is observing "Awareness Sunday", a joint initiative of many churches in the English-speaking countries, to remember the victims of violence, the conflicts that underlie it, and to pray for peace and reconciliation.

And so today I'd like to recommend Gordon MacDonald's "Reflections from Ground Zero", a 5-day diary written while he was working as a chaplain at Ground Zero, a week after the terror attacks (September 18-22, 2001). I first read them as forwarded e-mails soon after they were written. They are thoughtful musings on the work of a chaplain, the task of ministering in crisis situations. (If you're not up for reading the whole thing - it's pretty long! - you can find an abridged version here.)
However, I was distressed to see that even the "complete" version has been edited. The following paragraphs have been left out entirely (compare what you find at the bottom of this page to the "Day One" version linked above):
The Salvation Army is the only group that introduces you as a couple. It's never "we're glad to have Gordon MacDonald with us this morning...and Gordon is pastor...., etc." They always say, "We're glad to have Gordon and Gail MacDonald with us; they are pastors of..." The Army, from the very beginning, has respected the notion of women in ministry and leadership and the genius of couples working together as teams on a partnership basis.
So, literally within minutes, I decided that this was not a moment for me to preach but that Gail should join me in dialoguing the thoughts on Elijah's wilderness experience that I'd prepared. I whispered to her that I would "preach" the sermon to her and she should respond with ideas, insights and questions of her own. The result was a presentation that was twice what I could have done alone. She was just terrific. And to think that this was a woman who, twenty-five years ago, would have been terrified of getting up to do a spontaneous talk.
We started by reminding people of the familiar instruction given by flight attendants:"If you have a child with you, put your airbag on first and then do what has to be done to the child." That seemed a useful way to remind these dear folks of the importance of tending after the soul and the body as they help others.
It's particularly distressing to me as a woman training for ministry to find that these words about women in ministry and leadership had been omitted. I haven't yet re-read through the whole journal, so I don't know what else is missing, but I remember how impressed I was, upon my first reading in 2001, by the candor of MacDonald's musings on the strengths and weaknesses of different church traditions - comparing, for example, his own ministry with that of a Roman Catholic nearby. As well, of course, as his observations about the Salvation Army, who were his hosts and indeed his passport into this zone.

Let me close not with distress over omissions, but on the powerful and practical witness of the Salvation Army, with the words of another preacher who visited Ground Zero with them, Philip Yancey:
The Salvation Army has learned to meet needs at the most basic human level. They’ll certainly talk with you and pray with you if you want, and the Salvationists in the shiny red “Chaplain” jackets were in high demand. Mainly, though, they were there to wash out eyes stinging from smoke, and provide Blistex for parched lips, and foot inserts for boots walking across hot metal. They operated hydration stations, and snack canteens. They offered a place to rest, and freshly cooked chicken courtesy of Tyson’s. The day I arrived, they distributed 1500 phone cards for the workers to use in calling home. Every day they served 7500 meals. They offered an oasis of compassion in a wilderness of rubble.

(kind permission for use of this photo granted by the photographer, urban)


  1. Thanks for posting this. It is very disturbing that Gail's part was left out of the new version of McDonald's journal. The church should be a place of freedom for women to use their giftings, but sadly this is often not the case. . . . On a brighter note, I have had so many positive experiences with the Salvation Army here in Germany. Though their military terms and uniforms sometimes throw Germans off, they do know how to love people well.

  2. I found a statue of Catherine Booth (cofounder of the SA) this weekend in Ashbourne!


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