It was in the evil tragedy of 9/11 that I was called here, to Old First.
In the summer of 2001, the pulpit of Old First church was, as we say, "vacant." Pastor Otte had moved on to Tarrytown, and an interim pastor, Dr. Washington, was filling-in part-time, while the Search Committee looked for a new pastor to fill the pulpit.
I was the senior pastor at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had applied to Old First, and had been interviewed. My wife Melody did not want to come to Brooklyn: she had a good job in Grand Rapids, we owned a home (for the first time), and we were near her parents.
The other candidate preached her trial sermon at the "neutral site" of the Flatbush Church on Sunday, 9/9, where the Search Committee had gone to hear her. I was scheduled to preach there on 9/16. It was all very confidential in Grand Rapids; I had used the excuse that our Grand Rapids church was considering a partnership with the Flatbush Church, which was not untrue. Only my church officers and my associate pastors knew the whole story.
On the morning of 9/11 I was visiting a neighboring African-American pastor with whom I was trying to do some joint programming (Grand Rapids is very divided racially). His secretary ran in to the study and told us to come look at the television. We watched, transfixed, unbelieving, and listened to Bryant Gumble, who seemed just as shocked as we were.
I raced back to my own church. Immediately I began working with other city clergy to prepare a city-wide prayer service at the cathedral. And then I got a phone call, from Rick, the vice chair of the Old First search committee. He was at the Grand Rapids airport and could I maybe pick him up, and could he stay with us (the hotels were full) and could we send some clergy to the airport to minister to the people there?
It seems Rick had been flying to San Francisco for business, and his plane got put down in Grand Rapids. Coincidence? Providence? I went to the airport and picked him up. As we drove we agreed that I might have to postpone my trial sermon, as I really had to be with my own people at this time, and Rick understood, but the problem was that the next available date would be in October or November, and they already had a good candidate. I was very disappointed of course.
That afternoon, Melody got home from work, and there was Rick on our front porch. She looked up to heaven, and said, "Did you have to drop him right on the porch?" Then I told her that my trial sermon was now up in the air, so to speak.
That night I led some of the prayers at the cathedral downtown. My congregation's own service was scheduled for Thursday. On Wednesday I met with my leadership. They encouraged me to go to Brooklyn anyway. They said, "Of all the times to preach in New York, it's now. Especially since you're from there. You'll be with us tomorrow. We can cover the rest." Okay. It's on.
So Friday we drove to Brooklyn. No planes were flying, of course, and rental cars were scarce. Rick and Melody drove, and I sat in the back seat and rewrote my sermon.
Crossing the Tappan Zee we could see the fires and smoke at ground zero. Coming in over the Triboro was where it hit me emotionally. It was a familiar route from my childhood, how we drove back home to Bedford-Stuyvesant after visiting my relatives in Jersey. As you know, the whole city felt stunned and shocked and wounded. No airliners over the Grand Central Parkway, but fighter jets circling, a powerful symbol. That's where I "lost it."
We got into Park Slope Friday night. We walked around. The doors of Old First were open, people were there, candles were burning in and out, sheets of newsprint were hanging in the narthex and people were writing their prayers. The laymembers of Old First, without any help from any clergy, had decided to make this grand old building a sanctuary for everyone. I was impressed. This was the kind of church I'd like to serve. And every other church in the neighborhood was closed up and their gates locked.
On Sunday I preached the 9/11 sermon at the Flatbush Church, and the text from Jeremiah was perfect. As I came down the aisle, I was greeted by Mr. Woodson, an elder from the church of my childhood. He calls me Danny and he welcomed me home.
I have never felt so "called" as I felt then. And Melody began to believe that maybe this could be okay.
A week later the Search Committee offered me the pulpit. They made a great offer to Melody as well. Over the next two months we went through the normal approvals of the consistory, the congregation, and the Classis of Brooklyn, and in December, 2001, we moved to Garfield Place.
I am always uncomfortable in pointing to this or that in my life and saying, This was God. That feels presumptuous to me. I certainly do not believe that the destruction of the World Trade Center was an act of God, or was endorsed by God, or desired by God. And I do not want to trivialize 9/11, or make it overly personal for myself, when it was far more personal for many other people.
But it is very strange and mysterious to me how such an evil thing should have been, in my own life, for good. But in the midst of that awful event, I was called here, and I came.