From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

Reflections from the Pit

We have been called to heal wounds, To unite what has fallen apart, And to bring home those who have lost their way.

St. Francis of Assisi

It is exactly 227 miles (as the crow flies) from Peace Ledge, our home in New Hampshire, to Ground Zero. I know because, last night when we got home, I checked the distance on my global positioning satellite (GPS) gadget. But it might as well be a distance of several light years from here to there. The contrast between the two places is striking.

Twenty-five years ago, we named our home Peace Ledge because it sits in the woods, up on a hill, and smacks of tranquility—a place where God is very present to us. How many times we have come back to this place in fatigue, in gratitude, even in personal defeat, and found restoration here.

Peace Ledge is a dark place at night if the moon isn’t shining. Only if the breeze is right can you pick up the slight noise of a truck going through its gears on Route 106 five miles away.

Not so 227 miles away. There the brilliant halogen lights shine all night long and light up the smoke still percolating up from fires deep in the rubble (someone told me the temperature in the hot spots remains at seventeen hundred degrees). The noise in the pit is constant and sometimes painful to the ears. And the constant antlike, rushing motion in the pit by hundreds of men and women leaves one in almost a manic state of mind. Here at Peace Ledge there is something akin to an oasis; there I can think of no better description than the impression I have always had of Dante’s Inferno.

Yesterday we left New York and drove Interstates 95 and 93 north to our home in New Hampshire and began to unload the car. If it were not for the smells that linger on our clothes, our boots and my knapsack with which I carried special materials that Gail had purchased each day, it would be virtually impossible to believe that we have spent a week at the lip of the pit and worked with the people of the Salvation Army we’ve become privileged to know.

Before we left, Gail and I both spoke in a worship service at the Salvation Army Training Center. When I began my talk, I held up my Salvation Army cap that says Disaster Services, and I told the officers and cadets that of all the hats and caps and helmets I’d worn during my life, this one brought me the most pleasure. I would keep it, I said, for the rest of my life as a symbol of an extraordinary experience where I felt I saw the spirit of Jesus at work like never before.

On our last day at the pit, Gail and Colonel Rader had walked into the disaster area ahead of me. After finding a place to leave our car, I followed. Having the required credentials, I decided to walk through the pit (sort of a shortcut) from one entrance point to where our station was located. On the way, I stopped frequently to talk to men and women and prayed for a few who seemed particularly open to speaking to a “chaplain.”

Suddenly a foreman approached me and said rather brusquely, “Put your hard hat on! This is a hard hat area!” I realized that I was wearing my cap and not the hard hat that still dangled from the back of my knapsack. I thanked him for the reminder and made the switch immediately. He was right, of course. There is still the danger of pieces of glass or stone façade falling from buildings that ring the WTC disaster site.

This morning I started my talk to the Salvation Army officers and cadets with a description of that encounter. And I suggested that ministry is, or ought to be, a “hard hat” job. We can’t afford to let ourselves get sucked into the minutia of organizational life when a larger world beckons with all of its yearnings to hear a word of love and hope. But people who go out “there” better wear a hard hat of a kind because it’s a lot more dangerous than life in religious territory. On the other hand, some may debate that.

I have always known that I preferred life “out there” rather than inside the religious world. Perhaps that’s why, as Gail and I drove north, I felt a strong sense of melancholy coming over me, probably a kind of psychic and emotional withdrawal. After all, we have spent a week unlike any other week in our lives. Every moment was fraught with an intensity of experience that one can hardly describe to anyone who hasn’t been there. At the site, no one seemed a stranger. But now, away from the site, all the old feelings and experiences of incivility begin to creep back.

Drivers on the interstate are posturing for position at the tollbooths; at the gas station the attendant doesn’t even look at you when you try to engage him; and at the rest stop along the way, a young man lounges outside his car with his radio speakers turned up so loud that you can hear and feel his music pound on you fifty yards away. He doesn’t care who is affected by his insensitivity.

Not so at the pit. There, everyone seems to connect. Tell the policeman who stands nearby that you need some ice, and fifteen minutes will not pass before a van drives up and a half dozen burly officers begin loading you up with more ice than you can use. And then, when you say “Thank you,” they say, “No, thank you for what you’re doing.” Ask one of the “guerilla volunteers” if she’s seen any Dr. Scholl’s foot pads, and a case of them shows up rather mysteriously an hour later. From where? Ask any person who passes by how they’re doing, and they’ll talk to you as if you were lifelong friends.

I think life at this pit carries some hints of what combat veterans talk about when they reminisce, if you can get them to do it, about life under battle conditions. Stephen Ambrose was right: In such circumstances, we become a band of brothers (and sisters).

As we drive farther north into New England, we can see the first hints of fall coming on. There is relative cleanliness on the roads; there is greater order to the affairs of people; there is even the expectation of a hot bath when we arrive at home.

But somehow I prefer life at the pit. The pit is—if I dare to compare—a more real and more desirable place. It smells badly and its tumult pounds at you. But there is something awfully stimulating to the senses and to the soul at that place of human tragedy. And a part of me would rather be there wearing my hard hat and my Salvation Army chaplain jacket than be here.

I am reminded that missionaries often return home from hot spots where they have seen death, poverty, disease and great spiritual loss, and they often appear to be in shock and overly critical of the way they see Americans (American Christians) living. You can sense that they would like to say to many of us, “Get a life!” when they hear us talk about problems and needs that are really kind of petty when put in contrast to what they’ve seen. I suspect that Gail and I will struggle with that same kind of withdrawal for a while. Now I appreciate why many missionaries come to regard some Third World site as their real “home.” There is a quality of life out there on that edge that tugs at our souls and calls from us a better quality of person. We find that the gospel works better there, if you please; that it is designed to fit best in the suffering situation and is powerfully transforming. And if I may say it this way: when we go to such places and give away everything we have, we like ourselves better.

Life at the pit this past week renewed my sense of genuine manhood. I was pleased to feel bonded to real men and women who were bringing out the best in each other. I loved being in touch with their intensity, their sorrow, their determination to be faithful to their lost comrades. We were all swept up in a cause much bigger than us.

On the next-to-the-last day we were in the pit, I was walking (I forget to where) in the street among 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

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