Genelle Guzman-McMillan was the second of thirteen children and grew up on the Carribean Island of Trinidad. Genelle’s mother was a devoted Christian. But Genelle didn’t like church, thinking it was a waste of time. In fact, she thought that anything that cramped her style was a waste of time.
At age nineteen, expecting her first child, she moved in with her boyfriend. Six years later, the two of them split up and Genelle felt free to hit the club and party scene for which she’d always hankered. Somehow, in spite of now having two children, she made it through college, still managing to party most of the time.
Genelle seemed to have broken free from the old restrictions of her life and, depending on herself and her own wits. She was, as it’s said, “living large.”
In 1998, she moved to New York City where family and friends told her, she would find greater opportunity. She decided to leave her kids in Trinidad until she got settled in. After she came to New York, her ex-boyfriend informed Genelle that he was unwilling to let their kids come to America with her. That was okay with Genelle; by now, she was enjoying the party scene in the Big Apple. She quickly accepted being able to do more of it without having her children around.
By then, Genelle was living with another man, Roger McMillan. Like Genelle, he loved to spend his spare time partying. They were on top of the world until, Genelle says, there came “a remarkable turn."
Genelle worked in the Tunnels, Bridges, and Terminals Department of the Port Authority of New York, her office on the 64th. floor of the North Tower at the World Trade Center. It was early on September 11. 2001 and she was making small talk with a co-worker, when she felt the building shake.
At first, she and the others in her office had no idea that an American Airlines passenger jet had just slammed into their building. After a time of indecision and panic, Genelle and the others with her on the 64th. floor, heard a roaring noise, not knowing that it was the sound of the South Tower collapsing.
But that sound was sufficiently terrifying to convince them all that they needed to get out of there. They made their way down the stairs, counting each flight aloud. Firefighters were ascending the stairs as they descended, assuring them that if they kept going down, they would be fine.
By the time the group reached the thirteenth floor, Genelle’s leather-heeled shoes were killing her. As she leaned over to take them off, everything around her seemed to explode in a massive boom!
All Genelle could see was blackness. She felt something hit her chest and then, she was pinned to the ground. As she put it, “One hundred ten floors were coming down around us. I knew I was being buried alive. The noise was deafening.”
Then, things became quiet and Genelle couldn’t believe that she was still alive. Listen to what Genelle says happened next: “I knew then I was going to die. Nobody was going to find me under all the steel and concrete. I started calling out for [my friend] Rosa, but there was no response. Then I heard a man saying, ‘Help, help, help.’ His voice grew fainter, and then there was nothing.
“There in the dark, my mind started racing. I thought of my children, my family, and my fiancé, Roger...More than anything I worried about what would happen to me after I died. I didn’t know how to ask for forgiveness. I was sure I was going to hell.”
Beneath the steel and concrete, Genelle begged for a second chance at life, a second chance to live life God’s way. She floated in and out of consciousness for hour after hour, each time she came to praying for forgiveness and a miracle to help her to deal with the pain.
The next day, still under the rubble of the North Tower, Genelle heard the beeping sound of a truck backing up. She called out and a rescue worker heard her. But even though they shone a light all around and Genelle waved one hand, the only part of her that was free, no one saw her.
Then, Genelle faded from consciousness again. When she awoke, she heard rescue workers somewhere overhead and she prayed, “Please help me now!” She yelled at the workers. Nobody heard her. She desperately waved her hand again and now, somebody grabbed it.
“Genelle,” she heard, “I’ve got you! You’re going to be all right. My name is Paul. I won’t let go of your hand until they get you out.”
Soon, two rescue workers pulled Genelle out and Paul let go of her hand. Genelle was the last survivor to be pulled from the World Trade Center.
She spent five weeks in Bellevue Hospital, amazing the staff with her serenity. More than two years later, when I first read her story, Genelle still hadn’t had a nightmare about those horrible events.
One thing that bothered her though was that she never got the chance to thank Paul for taking her hand and reassuring her there in the rubble. She learned that there was no Paul among the rescue workers who went to Genelle that day. Not one of the crew who took her from the rubble knew of a Paul. Genelle is convinced that God sent an angel at just the right time.
September 11, 2001 began a new life for Genelle. As she puts it, “My life was very different than it had been before. I was amazed by how much God loved me.” She saw herself as a child of God. For the first time in her life, she felt truly free to be the person God designed her to be, the kind of person each and every one of us is designed to be.
Not only had Genelle been rescued; more amazingly still, this young woman who had been totally caught up with herself, with doing things her way, turned from sin and turned to the God we know through Jesus Christ...and got a new life!
Our Gospel lesson for this morning tells us about the proclamation of John the Baptist. John described himself simply as a voice. His voice called people to repentance. To repent means to change our minds about who’s in charge of our lives, to change our minds about our priorities. It really means to change our minds about who our God is.
Genelle had gone through her life before September 11, 2001, with many gods. She had worshiped at the altars of pleasure, good times, and herself, among others.
Under the debris of the World Trade Center, she came face to face with the reality that these things could not bring life nor save her life nor give her life purpose or meaning.
Fortunately for all of us, God long ago sent a rescuer Whose life, death, and resurrection can bring new life and second chances (and third and, if you’re like me, three-hundred thousandth chances) to all who follow Him.
On the first Christmas day, God sent Jesus Christ. Anytime we take His hand and let Him be in control, whether our days bring us trials, triumphs, tedium, tragedies, crosses, or crowns, we have new life.
Many people have the mistaken notion that Christianity is about morality. People tell me, “I like to send my kid to church because he learns the right way to live.”
But the right way to live is no big mystery! Anybody who takes the time to look it up will find that every major religious system in the world says pretty much the same things about morality. They say that loving and living at peace with our neighbor is a good thing, that we shouldn’t steal or take our neighbor’s spouse, and so on.
The problem isn’t that we all don’t know the right way to live. The problem is that we don’t know how to do it.
The sin in our bones keeps us from doing the good we know we should do and that deep down, we want to do.
Jesus Christ came to earth and lived the perfect sinless life, offering Himself as the sacrifice for our sin so that you and I can have his power to do what we cannot do in our own power: Turn from sin and live with God in our lives today and always.
I’ve mentioned it before and I probably will again: Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most powerful and important movements in our world today. AA and other movements patterned after it, uses a twelve-step process to help people get delivered from their addiction. The first step to freedom for the alcoholic or any other addicted person is the admission that he or she is powerless over the addiction.
Whether she had been rescued from the World Trade Center or not, Genelle Guzman-McMillan took her first step toward freedom when in a desperate and cataclysmic time, she finally told God that she knew she needed Him.
The acknowledgment of our helplessness and our desperate need of the God we meet in Jesus Christ can free us all for really living!
Jesus came into our world not as a great moral teacher, though He was a great moral teacher. Instead, Jesus came to be our God and Savior, the One to Whom we surrender even when we don’t understand, even when we would rather do anything but that which He calls us to do.
Jesus came to save us not only from future death, but also from the dead-end road of self-reliance.
That is a lonely road, something I have to keep learning all the time.
Once a few years ago, I was bellyaching about something to Ann. After listening to this for a while, she finally said, "Mark, ask someone to help you!"
Whether it's asking God for something or asking the people God brings into our lives to help us do the things we can't do on our own, we need to get over self-reliance and learn God-reliance!
When we follow Jesus, we not only walk with God, we also walk with that wonderful group of recovering sinners known as the Church, where God can provide us with the help we so often need in our lives and where we can be the means by which God helps not only other church members, but the whole desperate world.
In the days left until Christmas, as we deal with life’s stresses and the temptation to think that we’ve got to have everything in life under control, every t crossed, every I dotted, every package wrapped, I want to recommend a simple formula for repentance—a formula for turning things around in our lives in a positive way. It comes from Baptist pastor Gerald Mann, but it’s so good he could be a Lutheran. (Just joking!) Here it is:
I can’t. God can. I’ll let Him.Indulge me and say those three simple phrases with me, won’t you?
I can’t. God can. I’ll let Him.Jesus came to be our Savior. As we sing the carols and share our gifts this Christmas time, let’s remember, “We can’t. God can. We will let God—and no one and nothing else--be our God!”
[The true story of Genelle Guzman-McMillan is told in Jim Cymbala's book, Breakthrough Prayer.]