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A career path changed by 9/11

Ann Adkinson, pastor at Colby United Methodist Church since July, was living in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. - Tim Kelly/Staff photo
Ann Adkinson, pastor at Colby United Methodist Church since July, was living in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
— image credit: Tim Kelly/Staff photo

When Pastor Ann Adkinson speaks to her congregation at Colby United Methodist Church on Sunday — the 10th anniversary of 9/11 — her sermon will be infused with a unique perspective: She was there.

She was a New Yorker on 9/11.

She wasn’t a minister at the time, and didn’t have plans to become one. She was an aspiring actress when she left her Minnesota home in 1998 and moved to the Big Apple, like countless other young dreamers.

Her life in New York, however, was anchored in the fellowship she found in the Methodist congregation at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on the upper west side of Manhattan.

“That church community was so powerful in shaping me in my life,” says Adkinson, who was single and living on her own for the first time when she moved to New York, “but I think particularly around the events of 9/11.”

Those traumatic events didn’t prompt her to make a vow then and there to become a minister; she says it wasn’t until 2005 that she felt the call to enter the seminary.

“Some people experience faith as kind of lightning-bolt moments,” she says. “That’s not my experience.

“I feel the need to speak up for those of us for whom the faith journey is a slower process.”

But during an interview at her idyllic waterfront church, she acknowledges that in the decade since 9/11, “my career path has radically changed.”

From the office where she worked for a tax and accounting firm some 50 blocks from the World Trade Center, she saw the billowing clouds of smoke as the twin towers burned and collapsed on that shocking day.

The most vivid image in her memory, however, is of being out among a crush of freaked-out people milling around in the streets that day, many wondering how they would get home since the subways were shut down.

Asked if those overwhelming events caused her to question her faith, Adkinson says the experience only made her question her response.

“In some ways it clarified for me what I believed,” she recalls, “because there were so many examples of things that I was sure I did not believe.”

Such as seeing any religion twisted by a small group of extremists to justify violence. She was also appalled by the extreme statements of some prominent members of the Christian religious right who said 9/11 was God’s judgment on America for the nation’s sinfulness.

Her reaction was “If God is anywhere, God is in the towers, suffering and dying. God is with us in the pain.

“God is not causing it or inspiring it, nor is God explaining it.”

Her acting ambition faded, though not before her profoundly moving involvement in a theater production called “Sept. 11: In Our Own Words” that was based on interviews with people in her congregation about their experiences on that day.

The play, she says, explored “the fear and the panic and the anger and the grief ... and all those questions that come up.

“What does it mean? What are we called to do and to be in this world that has changed for us? What does Jesus call us to do in a world of violence?”

It wasn’t, she says pointedly, a call for the U.S. to “start a war that had nothing to do with (9/11).”

She felt moved to strengthen the interfaith relations that had already been an important part of her spiritual search.

“I knew American Muslims and they were horrified, they were outraged ... that their faith was being used in this abhorrent way,” she said.

But she adds that “because there was so much fear and anger and hurt, it was hard for those more peaceful voices to be heard.”

One thing 9/11 made her realize was that “to be disengaged was not a legitimate option for me anymore.

“It made me want to be a more informed citizen of the world. And it made me want to understand my faith tradition enough to be a voice of peace and reconciliation.”

Adkinson, who’s been the pastor at Colby United Methodist since July, left New York with her husband in 2009 when he became pastor at North Mason United Methodist Church in Belfair.

On Sunday, the former New Yorker will preach to her small congregation on the other side of the country about “God’s Promises of Hope in Our Broken World.”

The service will commemorate the 9/11 anniversary with a special litany in which the faithful will “lift up our grief for tragic losses of life, our gratitude for the generosity of first responders who sacrificed themselves to help others in the aftermath of the attacks, and our prayers for peace and an end to violence of all kinds.”

The pastor has one enduring message to offer.

“My understanding of the Gospel is that we are always called to stand for peace and reconciliation,” Adkinson says, “and sometimes that’s very hard.”

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