Salvation Army captain from Coon Rapids still recalls 9/11 work

by Jonathan Young
ECM Sun Post

Bill Mealy still gets quiet when asked about Sept. 11, 2001.

Capt. Bill and Capt. Ann Mealy of Coon Rapids are the new pastors at the Noble Worship and Community Center in Brooklyn Park. Sun Post staff photo by Jonathan Young
Capt. Bill and Capt. Ann Mealy of Coon Rapids are the new pastors at the Noble Worship and Community Center in Brooklyn Park. Sun Post staff photo by Jonathan Young

Like most who were old enough to understand what happened, he can tell you exactly where he was when he heard the news – in his office at the Salvation Army in Mankato. But he didn’t stay there.

As a captain in the Salvation Army, Bill went to Ground Zero in New York for two weeks. He served as the “red zone coordinator” in charge of the “Taj Mahal,” a football field-size tent where volunteers and rescue workers could find shelter and take a break.

He witnessed crews removing rubble. He saw a unity and brotherhood among people that surprised and humbled him. He listened to the stories of those who saw the collapse and did his best to offer hope.

“It’s a tough memory,” he said, his eyes brimming with the emotion that still surrounds the events.

Ground Zero wasn’t the first or last disaster site Mealy witnessed. He assisted after the 1998 St. Peter tornado, Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 floods in Fargo, N.D., and more.

As a captain (equivalent to a pastor) in the Salvation Army, he goes where he’s told to go. His most recent “marching orders” brought him and his wife, Capt. Ann Mealy, to the Twin Cities to take charge of the Noble Worship and Community Center in Brooklyn Park.

The Mealys moved from Fargo to Coon Rapids in January and are in the process of getting to know the northwest suburbs. They bring 13 years’ experience as captains in the Salvation Army and a passion for working with youth in the community.

The Mealys didn’t travel a smooth road to becoming pastors. They were high school sweethearts raised in Austin and they married young. Ann was 18.

Although Ann had attended the local Salvation Army church as a teen, she stopped regular church attendance after they married. The marriage hit problems and they divorced.

The Mealys had two sons and a daughter, and the divorce wasn’t easy for the kids.

“My son was reaching out for attention and he got in a bit of trouble,” Bill said.

The boy stole some baseball cards and a judge ordered him to perform community service, which he did at the Salvation Army.

Youth leaders got him involved in other activities at the church and began inviting his parents. Ann decided to help out with one of the youth programs as a parent volunteer.

The first time she went back to the church, one of her former Sunday school teachers, an elderly woman, recognized her.

“She was upstairs playing the piano,” Ann said. “… She stood up and called me by my maiden name  and said ‘Ann Whalen,’ where have you been?’”

Immediately Ann was “hooked.”

“It was pretty easy for me to go back, because it felt like home,” she said.

Not long afterward, she related her experience to Bill.

“I think God is what’s missing in our relationship,” she told him.

He resisted, but she persisted.

Eventually he agreed to try going to the church.

“When I walked in the doors of that building… I felt welcomed and loved,” he said.

Bill started attending the Salvation Army in December 1995. He and Ann rebuilt their relationship and remarried Feb. 23, 1996.

A couple of years later, they felt God was calling them to become officers in the church.

To enter the Salvation Army’s seminary in Chicago, Ill., they had to be debt free. So they sold everything, paid their bills and went to school for two years. They were commissioned (ordained) as lieutenants in May 2000 and were assigned to the Salvation Army in Mankato.

While serving in Mankato, they spent five years in continuing education through Olivet Nazerene University in Illinois before becoming captains.

The Mealys went to Fargo in July 2009, where they remained until their recent call to the Twin Cities.

As they get to know the community in the northwest suburbs, Bill wants to help the community get to know them and the church, as well.

“I guess one of the things we struggle with in the Salvation Army is telling our story,” he said.

Sometimes people think of the Salvation Army only as a thrift store or charity. But Bill said it’s first and foremost a church and that all its programs stem from a love of Jesus Christ.

It’s “Christianity with its sleeves rolled up,” he said.

They’re especially interested in reaching out to youth and would like to complete the church’s goal of building a gym for community use.

“We love people. We love working with the community. We’re hands-on pastors,” Ann said.

Jonathan Young is at [email protected]