Monday, September 12, 2011

Changes after a Crisis...A Response to the RevGalBlogPals Post

Ch-ch-ch-changes… Songbird, at RevGalBlogPals, asked if we had made changes as a result of 9/11. 

Yes. Yes, I did. 

The horrific events of that day were not the only influences on those changes, but I did feel a sense of finality—yes, I must do this in light of processing what happened.

I was in the second year of my seminary internship at a wonderful parish in the suburbs of Washington DC. We had a lot of federal employees in the congregation, and foreign service members from non-US countries. My then-husband was retired from the US military, although working for them as a civilian. Most of our family and friends were employed by the federal government or other official or semi-official agencies (my sister-in-law and her husband, for example, worked for one of the utility companies). 

It was a couple days after a successful church picnic which I had coordinated—I was feeling great about my coursework—a class on Psalms, with one of my favourite professors among them--the internship was going well, it was a gorgeous day. We had used a park shelter for the church picnic, and I had to return the key to the local recreation department. To this day I don’t remember why I couldn’t return on the Monday, but I couldn’t, so Tuesday I drove to the rec headquarters and dropped off the key, then took the scenic route to the church.
The drive is clear in my mind, almost every turn and vista, the sunshine on the trees, not yet beginning to turn, the summer flowers still blooming strong. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking of—classes probably, we were in the second week of them; or possibly some remodelling I wanted to do in the house, or about my son’s just-begun 7th-grade year. I was possibly also thinking about the events of about a year before, when my father went into the hospital for the last time. 

I arrived at the church and stopped in to say hello to the church secretary, whose office was on the way to mine. We chatted, and when the phone rang, I picked up my bags which I had put down to chat, preparing to head down to my office and begin my day. The secretary waved at me, though—it was my husband. I took the call there at her desk.

He said a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York; I got the sense that it was thought to be deliberate. 

We wheeled the TV from the youth room into the office, and gathered to watch the news, in between calls to locate family members. The second plane hit the other tower. I talked to my sister-in-law who worked near the White House. They were being sent home, but she carpooled and had no idea how that was going to work; there were rumours of explosions, of Secret Service snipers on the tops of various buildings, of bombs on the subway system. When we hung up, we both said a heartfelt, “I love you.” 

The pastor had arrived by this time, and I spoke with her about the possibility of a prayer service on the next night, of opening the church for prayer that night. To my shock and bewilderment (and today, my disgust), she dismissed any need for either, going into her office to work on her sermon for Sunday, and making it clear that she thought the rest of us (the secretary, myself, the custodian, and a couple of church members who happened to stop by) were over-dramatizing by watching all the coverage on TV. 

Then the plane hit the Pentagon. Things got very close to home—I had friends who worked there, as did members of the congregation. I had spent time in the building—getting a passport for an overseas posting, meeting my husband for lunch, shopping in the mall attached to it. 

Then the plane went down “in a field in Pennsylvania,” as Melissa Etheridge sings. One of my closest seminary friends, who had graduated in the spring, pastured a church not five miles from Shanksville.
We watched, stunned, shocked, frightened. My thoughts went to my family and friends—where were they, were they safe? My husband worked for the federal government, in a “sensitive” building, as they say. My son was in school, and for the moment the schools were continuing—they had no way of knowing if anyone would be home yet to meet the kids, so they kept them. My nephew was living in New York City—where, I had no idea—was he safe? And what about the various members of my husband’s family, who worked in NYC?
And above it all, the largest question to me—was it over? What would happen next? 

Eventually, the schools closed and sent kids home, the federal government sent people home, and my family gathered that evening to watch and try to make sense of it all. We learned through cell phone calls and emails of the safety of friends and family members. Some of the stories we would not hear for a while. My nephew in NYC running down the street, talking to his mother on his cell phone—and the phone went dead. The friend whose office was to be in the newly remodelled section of the Pentagon, who had been working in temporary quarters—the move that had been scheduled for September 1, but delayed because it wasn’t quite done. The cousin who worked in NYC and had gone to the company cafeteria for coffee at 9 am—the cafeteria’s large windows opened on the WTC, and the images of the next ten minutes lived in his nightmares for years.
The next morning, I had an interview with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry, in a rural church. I took the back roads to get there, leaving my son and husband watching coverage on TV—the government was closed and so were local schools. It was eerily quiet. Because most governments and large employers had shut down, there were very little traffic. The airport was not far away—but there were no planes. When one did fly over, as I waited to be called in for my interview, I watched it through the window in mixed fear and confusion and dawning understanding that it must be a military aircraft, flying a patrol. 

Over the next few months, I thought a great deal about many things—why my supervising pastor had not wanted to host a prayer service (we did have one; she grudgingly allowed as how if I wanted to put something together before the service on Sunday it was OK with her); the realization that the people killed had just been about their usual business of work or travelling or vacationing; that this sudden attack and death was what many people around the world already lived with—the difference here was the scale.  And I realised just how precious is this life—this everyday, routine life—the only one we are given.

I had several other reasons to think about the brevity of life.
                My father had passed away just a year before, and I had been coming to realise that he had not lived the life he wanted, that he had been disappointed in many ways—but instead of finding other satisfactions in life, he had wallowed in the disappointments.
                 A young member of the congregation had passed away during the winter—close to my age, with a child close to my son’s age—and death—my possible death—became even more tangible.
                In the spring, I took a study trip to Poland to study the Holocaust. Again, the sense of life being cut off too early, of death and violence interrupting life and destroying possibility and promise forced me to think and look at my own life.

Had I done what I needed to do in life? Was I living my life as God intended me to? 

My life did not change overnight. But gradually, I came to terms with what I needed to do to be most truly the person God had created me to be. 

I was consecrated a probationary elder (i.e. temporary pastor…), and appointed to a church. This felt right and good, My husband and I went back into marriage counselling—I felt 20 years of marriage deserved one last try. 

But over the next few months, I realised that our marriage could not continue, it was no longer a partnership of mutual respect and support and understanding. At the same time, I was awakening to the need to be truly who I am—as God made me, as I am called to be. 

In the end, I ended my marriage, came out as a bisexual woman, and transferred to another denomination. 

The events of 9/11 on their own would have opened my eyes to the necessity of integrity in ministry, of honesty about who I am and the quality of relationships that I deserve. But 9/11 was the final ingredient in an on-going process. Because of that day, I came to realise that:
                Contrary to my self-perception, I have a sense of pastoral need that others often don’t, even other pastors.
                While it is easier to “go along to get along,” there come times when we cannot do that, and even if other people are upset, angered, or must rearrange their lives, the truth must be told and lived. This is still a struggle for me—sometimes in the moment, it feels too frightening or difficult—but I am improving! “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes”(Mary Oliver, I think).
                We have only one life to be all that God created us to be—I don’t want to waste it on “that which does not satisfy,” nor on being less than I am meant to be.
                This precious life can vanish at any moment—cancer, a traffic accident, a heart attack, random violence—any number of things can pull us out and away, without our having really lived as we are meant to live.

And so I have to say that yes, that terrible day in September 2001 did change my life. I was a married heterosexual mother and seminary student, living a conventional suburban life, preparing to become a pastor in a mainstream denomination, foreseeing a career of rural and suburban churches, culminating in one or two larger churches and possibly a stint as a district superintendent. 

Ten years later, I am a single, out, bisexual woman, pasturing a small urban church in another country and another denomination, a cancer survivor, a published author (one article, but still!). I’m still a mother! 

But now, as a result of many events, with 9/11 being among the most important, I am more likely to speak my truth, to not be silent, not be the “nice” one, to take the time to look at what I really want and am meant to do, not what others (however well-intentioned) want me to do. 

I am more fully alive.


Songbird said...

RP, thank you so much for sharing your story.
Thinking about your supervising pastor, we have an amazing range of responses within our own profession, and I wonder what she would say now, ten years down the road?

revkjarla said...

Thank you for this thoughtful account.

Much to ponder upon.

I am grateful for the last line,
"I am more fully alive."

Ruth said...

Thanks for this RP - I can echo some of it: 9/11 was part of my coming to a sense in my marriage that "I am not going to go through life hating my life" - but you put it so much better and more positively with 'being fully alive'.
One of my psychology tutors at college would often quote Alfred Adler who said we are not human beings but 'human becomings' - may you be blessed with continual becoming in Christ.

Clarence Darrow--Beyond Scopes and Leopold & Loeb

Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good histor...