It happened a long time ago—but the experience speaks to me almost daily.
On Thursday, April 23, 1987, I turned on the television at the end of one of our delightful, sun-drenched vacation days in Florida to hear the national news report on the collapse of L’Ambiance Plaza, a 13-story building under construction in Bridgeport, Connecticut—about 4 miles from our home at the time. Of the 70 men working at the site, 28 were missing under the tons of concrete and steel.
When we returned from Florida on Monday, a few days later, I immediately joined the Pastoral Care Team that was providing a round-the-clock presence at the site. By Wednesday, seven days into the disaster, they had recovered 16 bodies and were still searching for the remaining 12. I went to the disaster site from 9:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m. for my shift on the Pastoral Care Team to be available to the families, construction workers, police, fire-fighters and medical personnel.
In all candor, I felt helpless and unimportant at the edge of the pit. They had located 4 more bodies, but it would be hours before they could get to them. What could I do?
Around midnight I was talking with one of the union bosses I’d gotten to know who’d been there from the very beginning.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Mike said, “This place is like hell — and we need to know God’s still around.”
His simple affirmation chastened me. I had fallen into the lie that the twisted pile of rubble represented the “real world” and that my “spiritual resources” were of little use. Mike didn’t expect me to dig through concrete, use a torch, operate a crane or provide medical care. He had plenty of people to do that. He needed me to be there as a visible representative of God. Not to explain. Not to fix. Simply to express God’s presence in the midst of tragedy.
We often think too little of ourselves. We forget God can move through our simple, caring presence. I think this is, in part, what Henri Nouwen (professor at Yale and Harvard, author and spiritual director) means when he calls us “living reminders.” In the following quote he speaks of ministers and pastors, but the idea applies to all Jesus’ disciples. Nouwen reminds us that our primary value is who we are as witnesses of our Lord.
What are the spiritual resources of ministers? What prevents them from becoming dull, sullen, lukewarm bureaucrats, people who have many projects, plans and appointments but who have lost their heart somewhere in the midst of their activities? … Nihls Dahl, speaking about early Christianity, says: “The first obligation of the apostle vis-a-vis [in relationship to] the community– beyond founding it– is to make the faithful remember what they have received and already know– or should know.” [Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in memory of Jesus Christ, Minneapolis: The Seabury Press, 1977, 11].
“Remember what you have received and already know– or should know.” And remind others, too. What should we know?
The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” Deuteronomy 31:8 (NIV).
But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior (Isaiah 42:1-3).
In a world that emphasizes power, many things remind us of our lack of power: like severe weather, political conflict, terrorist attacks, buildings collapsing, addictions, “irreconcilable differences,” and natural disasters, to name a few. We, as God’s people, are living reminders to help the faithful recall the truth of the gospel and the resources of faith, hope and love God has provided in Christ. We are also witnesses to the watching world that, in spite of the worst the world can do people, God can meet them in the darkness and bring light.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…” Acts 1:8 (NIV).
There are many ways to witness. Sometimes it’s just being there– and responding as God leads.