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Sunday, June 20, 2010

What Firefighting Taught Me About Evangelization

I always become a little more reflective when I approach my next birthday, and given the movie I watched a few days ago, (Smokejumpers) I've been thinking a lot about the stuff I did in my 20's, the aspirations I had, and, well, the actual results of my efforts.

Although in many ways I often look back on those efforts and judge them as "failures", when I see them in light of the Cross, I can see something more, something that isn't about me, but tells a story that simply turns my experiences into a living parable.

To be honest, it is only in viewing my past through this lens that both gives me clarity and helps me come to terms with what happened, ensuring that I cannot possibly ever view my life as a "waste of God's time."

EVERYTHING is a part of God's time, and part of His timing. In cooperation with Him, I can look back and find the lessons He intended for me to learn, and hopefully, to pass on to others. What follows is only one of those lessons.

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Back in my employment with the big city, during the Tower portion of Firefighter training our days consisted of roll call, review of the SOP's (Standard Operating Procedures), practice of certain foundational skills, and the training evolutions scheduled to build upon the previous day's training. It started out in the same way one learns to shoot a gun: with basic safety (i.e. "dry firing") care and cleaning, etc,....and then we began to get into the real meat of it, slowly building the skills at the appropriate time.

The six weeks at "The Tower" were the final culmination of our training, where we put all the academics and practical skills to use in a systematic application of the SOP's. In other words, it was where our real mettle was tested, where we confronted our fears and failings and had to make the choice to push beyond...or fall back.

There were lessons learned, however, that applied to other things. Much of the process was reminiscent of my law enforcement training and work, and for others in my class, of their military experience.  Yet, what we learned wasn't limited to the practical realm.

While I was there, I was also experiencing my return to God. That adage about there being no atheists in foxholes?  Yeah, well, we weren't in foxholes, but when you realize your mortality in exercises that might well actually cost you your life in mere training, well, that tends to introduce you more often to your knees. (Given that I was at the Training Tower on 9/11/2001, that lesson came even more completely home.)

Truly, God was a part of my training even when religion wasn't a formal part of my life.

The Evolution

We were sent into the Residence, where natural gas-inspired fires would burn according to the control of the Training Captains (read: Drill Sergeants).

Each trainee was assigned a position, and we were expected to know the details of each role within that evolution. I happened to draw what was perhaps one of the physically easier roles, but one requiring the most courage with regard to being center stage:  I was on the nozzle for our first "fire".

We went into the building in full gear, airtanks engaged as if the smoke was real, and with a "charged" hoseline running from the Engine at the closest hydrant.  I had the nozzle in hand, felt the door with the back of my gloved hand, opened it, and crawled in under the smoke, my secondary (in real life would be my Captain pushing/yelling)  behind me, "rolling" the tankline just as he was supposed to do.

It was pitch black, so I relied on my training thus far to follow the wall, find the doorknob, find the fire. Finally I opened the door to the proper room and from the midst of the smoke came the hot glow of flames arising from the gas pilot lights, mimicking a real fire. I entered the room slightly, pointed the nozzle, and opened the line. The Drill Sergeant Training Captain yelled at me to get closer, so, holding the fully open hoseline I struggled against the force of the water to crawl in further, surprised by the blast of heat that hit me so quickly. (No textbook explanation can describe this experience.)

I knew about not "steaming us out". I knew I had to nail this thing and had to do it right. My backup person (cadet like me) came up behind me to provide physical support, and just as he was supposed to, pressed his forearm and elbow against my back to brace me. With this initially-helpful counterbalance, I directed the nozzle according to our shared will to make the fire go away.


The Captain began yelling at me to advance. I tried, with all my might!

 But my partner,expecting me to move on that command,  immediately put more pressure on me.

The problem was this: he thought he was helping me to move forward, but in actuality, his main pressure point was against my upper back and shoulders. Instead of aiding a tactical advance, he was, in fact driving my entire upper body, and therefore the nozzle (our lifeline) into the ground.

I tried to yell back at him to back off, but instead he only pushed harder, even while the Captain screamed even more loudly at me to get the nozzle up and to get closer to the fire.

I knew the Captains could see what was going on and wondered why they kept yelling for my advance when they could see that my face was nearly driven to the cement, such that the water stream had gone even lower than the base of the training fire!  I could see it splashing against the brown vents of the "fire source", far below the flames I was supposed to be hitting. With all my strength I was pushing the nozzle hard upward with my hand and biceps, painfully handicapped by the muscles I was not able to use as a result of my co-worker's own battle to get us into the mouth of the dragon. I was desperately attempting to relieve the pressure, desperately trying to crawl forward, completely unable to move because of the force against my upper back, continuing to drive me DOWN, not FORWARD.


The screams of the other firefighters yelling at me to "PUT IT OUT!!" "ADVANCE!" "YOU'RE STEAMING US OUT!" still ring through my memory. I can't forget the struggle to push back against my backup, trying to raise the nozzle and put us all out of our misery.

To me, it felt like we were approaching the sun. To them, it felt like they were vegetables being steamed in a convection oven. We were all suffering. We were all miserable, and it seemed that perhaps no one, not even the Captains, realized that I was so totally, embarrassingly helpless.

I was helpless because my backup was oblivious to what he was actually doing, and our Captains, ALL three of them,  continued to scream at me to advance, in spite of the fact it was quite literally impossible to do anything other than lay down and die to get any other message across to them.

Instead, I struggled in utter physical and emotional agony, and finally, at long last, I made my way to the fire, close enough to satisfy the Captains, aiming the nozzle properly enough to satisfy my fellow "firefighters".

The fire went out and, well, I barely remember my exit. The only thing I wanted to do was to breathe fresh air. I exited that fire to an entirely new verbal blast from the other trainees. The Captains didn't even allow me to defend myself...they cut us all off immediately with a command to stand down.

As it turned out, they had a point and knew fully what was going on.

One of their points, from a "personnel" (note: not "personal") standpoint was to see how I would handle being pushed both physically and verbally, especially when the two factors made obedience to either impossible. They wanted to witness the struggle and final outcome.

I didn't know any of this when I stood with my immediate "team" from our first evolution. I only recall standing up wearily, drenched in sweat, listening to the complaints of my coworkers and friends, all of whom had no idea what had just happened and why. I left the training building feeling like a total failure, knowing that I had lost respect, certain that in the future, NONE of them would ever want to work with me, certain I would kill them and anyone we were sent in to save.

Then the Captains surprised us all

Yes, they were critical of me; as this was a first-time attempt, certainly I made errors, and serious ones at that!  Those errors were expected and normal. Our superiors went through a litany of errors that didn't leave a single classmate within that evolution untouched. I was certain I would be crucified in this one, and waited, expecting the worst, but, well, that was the capstone:  the harshest criticism was reserved for my #2 person: the guy who was supposed to be backing me up!

The Captains pointed out that it wasn't my fault that they and my coworkers were getting steamed out; it was HIS fault. They actually noted how hard I struggled against him in my attempts to advance, the effect of his force, and spoke of the physics of leverage.

I am not a tall person, but this guy was. All his strength, although intended otherwise, was put into pushing my upper back and shoulders DOWNWARD. It was HE who drove the nozzle into the ground, and me with it. The Captains could see that I wasn't hesitating, but was quite literally trapped by "friendly fire".

They preached awareness, not just of ourselves, but of those we are backing up. As a shorter person, they emphasized where I would need to place support on a taller person, and actually reversed our physical positions to demonstrate this for the entire group, with an open hoseline. For the tall firefighters working with a shorter person, they emphasized the importance of proper position, for the force from behind in any case will quite literally redirect the nozzle, usually to detrimental effect.

They spoke of communication, of the need for both people to be close enough to know each other well, to speak freely and  to be aware of the other and what they needed. It had to be a team effort. They had seen me trying, my partner not listening. It had to be a two-way street or, well...people would die. Those were the stakes.

Oh, yes, I learned that day how important the #2 person is, and it's a lesson I've never forgotten. Even though I was personally vindicated in that particular scenario, I have come to realize that there's more to that lesson, and where it matters, well...I'm the #2 person and I've more than pushed others down: I've steamrolled right over them in a misguided effort to get them to where I thought they should go.

That brings me to the main point:

That lesson makes sense in Evangelization, too.

In Evangelization, we are trying to advance a soul towards the light of Christ, towards salvation. In effect, they are "on the nozzle".

If the backup person is too harsh, too overbearing, instead of helping that soul towards the Divine Fire, they are driving them into stagnancy, or perhaps even worse.

Coming on too strong is as bad as being too lax; in both cases, the soul in question is left in limbo and might actually be destroyed.

There is a balance to maintain, it relies upon teamwork, and God is the Source, the Catalyst, and the Captain.  Every effort comes FROM Him and is directed TOWARDS Him. Any effort that places pressure so as to direct the focus away from Him is, well...deadly. (Yes, there is a place for backfires, for containment, for "surround and drown" spiritual terms we call those techniques the Sacraments, Sacred Tradition, and the Intercession of the Saints, among other spiritual realities.)

Every so often, when I think of evangelization and the mistakes I've witnessed or those I have made myself, I recall that scene, there in the training house, and I recall the sense of panic, the steam, the heat, and the pressure that wouldn't allow me to either advance or flee...and I am brought to empathy.

We are called to lay down our lives in service to Christ. We are NOT called to sacrifice the lives and souls of others. If we deny others the free will given to them by God, we both deny Christ and become culpable for all those we cause to flee from Him.

Evangelization isn't about us; it's about Jesus Christ and the salvation of souls, and the second we lose that focus, we drive others away, and may, in fact, spiritually murder them.

Evangelization must be bound and driven by Divine Charity, directed towards Hope, underscored by Faith. We need to be able to step aside, recalling that conversion and salvation do not depend on us. Many souls need a gentle approach, and hard sales tactics do nothing other than scare them away, or in the terms I experienced, drive them into the ground, paralyzing them.

It is a great temptation for believers to pressure others we love to go where we want them to go, however we must remain cognizant that our pushiness may not be the will of God, no matter what we may think. Perhaps some souls need to suffer in order to be brought to conversion. Perhaps they need to fall away in order to understand what they have lost.(I fell into both categories, and then some).

We have to recall that God is the only one who can bring good out of evil, and He allows evil and suffering for just such a purpose. Look at Our Lord Jesus Christ for this example! Who are any of us to complain of suffering in the face of the One who suffered on our behalf and invites us to partake, to unite our own sufferings to His?

Everyone We Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle

We must act with mercy, in light of what we know of divine justice. For our part, we must temper all we do with true charity, which is not a "warm and fuzzy" type of "total acceptance of all things".  What I experienced that day in the tower was real charity:  I suffered what I perceived as injustice, but were it not for that experience, neither I nor my fellow cadets would have gotten that lesson from any side.

True charity can be harsh, for it has in its sight the ultimate good of every soul. It meets the soul where it is and directs it to something greater. It allows the soul to suffer for what it thinks it loves in order that it might become purified enough to experience what it truly loves.

We must take care of the souls who come across our paths, and be willing to be gentle where a gentle touch is needed. It is easy to be forceful in evangelization;  most of those called to this work in a serious way have strong personalities; it is hard to stand down when the love of Our Lord drives one onward. Yet that very love must be the cause of awareness, for when only one soul is lost, if only one soul flees....we are all deprived.

We all suffer. We are all steamed out.

We become less if only one is compromised.

We lose souls if, out of our pride we forget to take a backseat to those we love.

We lose our own souls if we forget to take a backseat to God.


X said...

Wow! I needed to read this post today!!! Thank you, Adoro!

Vincenzo said...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

uncle jim said...

in Catholic liturgical parlance: BINGO!