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Jim Macdonell: Building community through service

By Staff | Feb 6, 2009

Jim Macdonell

“If you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk.” You hear that all the time. One can’t help but notice that so many people who live and work here “walk the walk.” On any given day there are posses of Shepherdstonians teaching, driving, serving, supporting and caring for others. They do it without fanfare and they do it without pay. It’s beautiful.

Jim Macdonell is such a person. Be that as it may, you say – isn’t the Rev. Dr. James Macdonell a minister? And isn’t that what ministers are supposed to do? Absolutely but there are degrees.

Jim Macdonell was born in Minnesota, the second of Ruth Crawford and Charles Macdonell’s three children. When he was five, the Macdonells moved to Evanston, Ill. Ruth was an ordained elder and a National Vice President of Presbyterian Women. Charles was an ordained elder and President of the Men’s Council of the State of Illinois. Jim wanted to be a cartoonist. After graduating from Evanston Township High he earned a diploma from the American Academy of Art in Chicago. He went to work for a Chicago ad agency and became the back-up for Rich Yeager and “Buck Rogers.” He was that good.

Though he loved his day job, Jim found his calling on weekends working on houses for underprivileged teenage kids and summers volunteering at their camp. “I was fed by that work.” Jim said. “I loved my art but I liked this even more.” He decided to pursue a career in social work and enrolled in Lake Forest College in Illinois and graduated with a BA in Psychology. Always the artist, while in college Jim got a job as the cartoonist for the Lake Forest College paper. (Herb Locke, the father of political cartoons, was also a Lake Forest grad.)

It was the ’50s when his work in psychology and with under privileged children put him on the path to the ministry and led him straight to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. “It was during my McCormick seminary days that I first heard an African American Doctoral candidate from Boston College speak at Chicago’s Sunday Evening Club. The young speaker was Martin Luther King, Jr.” The spark of peace-keeping had been lit in his childhood but this particular evening started the fire.

By 1960 Jim was the organizing pastor at Saint Marks Presbyterian Church in Bethesda. “As I began my parish ministry I came to realize that the nation’s capital was a very segregated southern city. Little did I realize that I was organizing a new parish at a time and place that put me directly at the center of the new civil rights movement in Washington, DC.”

St. Mark’s was deeply involved in hosting the 1963 March on Washington and Jim was one of the leaders in the effort. And on August 28, 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the young minister from Minnesota was sitting only a few rows away.

“That year I was asked by the national Council of Churches to direct a voter registration drive for black citizens in Canton, Mississippi.” He said. Fully unprepared for what awaited, Jim and three members of the church flew off to Mississippi for what he remembers as ten of the most unforgettable, frightening days of his life. It was a learning experience about threats, violence and intimidation that he will never forget.” Another saying that fits Rev. MacDonnell – “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

More committed to the cause of civil rights than ever, in 1965 Jim and twenty-six clergy members from Washington, DC flew to Selma, Alabama to answer MLK’s call to march with Selma’s black voters immediately after the rioting and bloodshed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Jim’s was the first contingent to arrive. What happened in Canton and Selma are prominent moments in our nation’s history.

Jim was appointed Pastor of St. Marks in 1961 and set the mission to focus on helping the underprivileged and fight the fast-growing teen drug culture. St. Marks supported residential treatment programs, in-house schooling, outward-bound, group and family counseling and all efforts that made their “community” stronger. The church led a movement to save a rural black community in Scotland, Maryland, which was being threatened by real estate developers. Save Our Scotland, or SOS, was the program responsible for transformation of the existing neighborhoods and with grant money from church’s self-development of people fund, one hundred new homes were built specifically for the residents. The effort was impressive and in 1972 the Montgomery County government asked the group to spearhead the design and development of a therapeutic residential treatment program for boys. Karma House Academy was born and is still alive and well.

In 1977, now a single father raising four children, Jim married a lovely young widow, Nancy Dittemore. “Nancy loved being a minister’s wife and she loved me and the children.” He smiled. ” And she was so good at it all. I’m a very lucky man.”

In 1983 Dr. Wiley Branton, Dean of Howard University Law School and Rod Boggs, Director of the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights organized an area clergy committee to highlight and support fair housing. Jim recruited a group of clergy, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish, and formed the non-profit, Fair Housing Committee of Greater Washington. Jim was elected president. The committee was renamed The Equal Rights Center and broadened the mission to include employment and disability discrimination and today Jim is the president of the Board of Directors. Years ago he was inducted into the Montgomery County Office of Human Rights Hall of Fame for his forty year fight against discrimination. Jim remained the Pastor at St. Marks until 1997; and when he retired, the St. Mark’s Fellowship Hall was renamed Macdonell Hall, and he was named Pastor Emeritus.

In 1984 Jim and Nancy built a getaway home on Whiting Neck Farm Estates overlooking the Potomac. It’s a round house and the view from any vantage point is spectacular. When they made it their permanent home, they found the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. Nancy began lending her voice to the choir, and Jim would fill-in for Randy Tremba – on the rare occasion Randy actually took a day off. It’s Jim’s personal belief that “If people move to this town with any social concerns, they’ll eventually wind up in this church.”

It was then Jim went to Eastern Seminary in Philadelphia for his doctorate of ministry in marriage and family counseling. He got involved with the Presbyterian Committee for Northern Ireland and became a leader in PCNI’s mission to support Northern Ireland’s peace and reconciliation solutions. “I first visited Northern Ireland in 1991 with the PCNI during the last days of “the troubles.” He’s been involved ever since and served as organization Chair since 2001. For the past several years Jim has directed the Bi-annual Irish Summer Institute taking protestants and Catholics alike to Dublin and Northern Ireland to meet with religious, political and community leaders involved in the peace process.

When he’s not traveling to further the cause of peace and fairness, Jim spends his time with his art turning out wonderful pen and inks of places from his travels. He and Nancy are devotees of good music, especially jazzCannonball Adderly, Ramsey Lewis, Red Hold. Recently Jim was appointed to the board of the Friends of Music and the Macdonells are at all the concerts. Jim said the SU jazz ensemble “is as good as any I’ve ever heard.” He singled out the playing of Mark Cook as the “best there is.”

Jim’s Macdonell’s life has been devoted to the peace process. At home and around the world, he’s been bringing opposite sides together to talk, to work things out, and to make lives better for almost fifty years. The list of awards and honors he’s received would take another page. But they all pay tribute for the same reason. This man preaches the word of God and practices what he preaches.

– Sue Kennedy is a former public relations executive and Emmy Award winning screenplay writer.