‘Keep me out of Your way’ – Fr Mychal Judge, chaplain & casualty of 9/11

Father Mychal Judge was a little-known Franciscan friar ministering humbly to the disenfranchised and unloved on the streets of New York City… until September 11, 2001, when he suddenly became a global figure.

As chaplain to the city’s Fire Department, he rushed to help first responders at the World Trade Center but was killed by falling masonry in the North Tower. The picture above, of his body being carried out of the debris, became an icon of the atrocity.

Writer and BBC journalist Michael Ford wrote the first biography of Mychal Judge after his death, which became an overnight bestseller. Michael Ford explored the outer and inner life of the ‘Saint of 911’, his extraordinary ministry among people experiencing homelessness and immigration restriction; lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people and AIDS patients, and the struggles of a charismatic but deeply wounded man wrestling with guilt, alcohol addiction and sexuality. I have met Michael Ford, and heard him speak about Fr Mychal’s life and legacy.

Twin beams of light from the Liver Building on September 11, 2002 commemorate 9/11 and the launch of the Liverpool housing charity now known as Housing People, Building Communities.

In 2015 I applied for a house in an estate being developed by Housing People Building Communities, a housing charity in Liverpool founded on September 11th 2002, the first anniversary of 9/11. The founders helped to organise a commemoration with two beams of light projected into the sky above the Royal Liver Building, paying tribute to the casualties of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks and celebrating the ethos of building communities together and creating harmony and reconciliation.

The housing charity originally intended to name the street at the heart of the estate ‘Mychal Judge Close’ in honour of the New York Fire Department chaplain. When I applied for a house on the estate, I was really touched by this, as reading Fr Mychal’s story had moved me deeply.

By the time the estate was completed in 2016, street naming rules had changed and it was not possible. So I named my new home ‘Mychal Judge House’, and received the keys on September 12th (September 11th was a Sunday that year so I just missed the anniversary). I adopted Fr Mychal as an inspiration for my chaplaincy with vulnerable adults affected by addiction and homelessness at the YMCA, and my ministry with lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people through the Open Table Network.

Icon of Fr Mychal Judge by Bro Robert Lentz OFM

In the hall of Mychal Judge House is the icon pictured here:

A prayer written by Fr Mychal Judge has also become a regular part of my spiritual practice as I seek God’s guidance for my chaplaincy:

“Lord, take me where You want me to go
Let me meet who You want me to meet
Tell me what You want me to say and
Keep me out of your way.”

— Fr Mychal Judge

Stainless steel bracelet etched with Fr Mychal Judge’s prayer

When I am with people as a chaplain, I often find I have no idea how to respond to what will come my way as people share their hopes, struggles and prayers with me. The last two lines of Fr Mychal’s prayer are particularly important. I often pray ‘tell me what you want me to say’, and the results can be surprising and inspired.

I have also shared the last line of the prayer – ‘Keep me out of your way’. Some fellow Christians have suggested it should say ‘Keep me in your way’, but my experience tells me what I think Fr Mychal intended. I know my fears and doubts can get in the way of me being a channel for God to reach people I support. This prayer reminds me that I can’t do this work under my own strength, but if I can surrender my fears and doubts in prayer, God’s ‘power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine’ [Ephesians 3:20-21]

As  Francis DeBernardo writes about Fr Mychal’s spirituality:

“What is unique about Mychal’s prayer is the last line: ‘Keep me out of your way.’ Although he was often valorized in his lifetime for his willingness to serve others, Mychal deflected such praise, knowing that he himself could often be the major obstruction to God’s will and mercy. For him, praying for God to show the way was not sufficient without also praying for the grace to avoid being the obstacle to God acting in the world.”

— The Unique Spirituality of Father Mychal Judge

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