Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Reminder of Courage

Even though the terrorist attacks on 9/11 may be a horrible memory to most of us, the events are still very much always alive in the minds of those who lost loved ones. Every now and again the rest of us are reminded of the tragedy, and very occasionally in a negative way.

Earlier this year an American radio broadcaster, Carson Daly, joked about what would happen on a plane full of gay men if it was hijacked. He insinuated that they’d be camp and panicky and utterly helpless. His apology the next day doesn’t hide his homophobia.

As history, and the 9/11 attacks, has shown gay men are just as capable of acts of courage and bravery as anyone else. Daly’s “joke” sparked a response from Alice Hoglan. She is the mother of Mark Bingham, the gay rugby player who was instrumental in stopping hijackers of Flight 93 by storming the cockpit and forcing the plane to crash before it reached its target. In doing so Mark and his fellow passengers knew they were going to die.

Mark Bingham has become one of the best known of the 9/11 victims, not because he was gay but because of his courage. And that is how it should be. The stories of the victims show that bravery and courage shows no discrimination.

Heroes like Mark Bingham find courage in the heat of the moment. Others need courage at all times because of the nature of their work. The emergency services during 9/11 were full of brave people risking their lives in a situation which they could not have known would get gradually worse. The New York City Fire Department was particularly badly hit with 343 of its personnel being killed during the rescue attempt.

I’d like to take time to remember one of these- the first official victim of 9/11, Father Mychal Judge. I mentioned him last year, but here is a little more about him.

Father Mychal Judge was a Franciscan friar and chaplain to the fire department. His work  involved going with the firefighters to scenes of fires to provide spiritual support to anyone – firefighter or victim – who needed it. On 11th September 2001 Father Mychal went with his colleagues (his “boys”) to the Twin Towers.

One of the firefighters was hit by a falling body from the first tower and laid fatally wounded. Father Mychal rushed to give him the last rights. He knelt beside his “boy” and took off his safety helmet. As he did so more debris fell on top of them, killing them both instantly. Or at least that’s the accepted story. The reality is no less tragic. Father Mychal’s body was found inside Tower One and no-one is really sure how he died. The special place he had in the hearts of his colleagues is seen in the apocryphal manner in which his death is remembered. His “boys” gave him a death they felt fitting for his courage, which itself cannot be doubted.

Father Mychal was also a gay priest. He had a lively personality, called “theatrical” by some who knew him.  Being the son of Irish immigrants he had the “blarney” to make even confirmed enemies friends. At the start of the AIDS epidemic Father Mychal ministered to the gay community and tried to offer as much help as he could. Within the Catholic Church his sexuality was conveniently overlooked, perhaps because of his popularity with all sections of the New York community.

As well as his chaplaincy in the fire department he visited charity shops giving donations of clothes. A regular point of call was the Out of the Closet AIDS Thrift Shop. The owner, knowing Father Mychal worked with the fire department, once asked if he could donate a fire helmet to the shop. With characteristic humour the Father said “Get in line!. Do you know how many gay men want one of those!”

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