Jim McNulty ’96: Finding Peace in The Upper Room

After surviving a hostage situation, an alumnus founds a support group for people with PTSD.

McNulty speaks to a potential voter while campaigning for a seat on the City Council of Gaithersburg, Maryland, in 2017.
McNulty speaks to a potential voter while campaigning for a seat on the City Council of Gaithersburg, Maryland, in 2017.

On the last Wednesday of each month, amidst the quiet hours of the evening twilight, there is a group that meets at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church Parish Center in Rockville, Maryland. Its members all have something in common, a physiological response to a traumatic experience that continues to affect them long after the experience itself has ended. The group is called The Upper Room, and it provides people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with an oasis of support as they continue along their journeys of healing.

“That’s what we call it, a ‘journey of healing,’” said Jim McNulty ’96, the group’s founder and facilitator. “It’s not about the destination; we don’t know what the destination is, but it’s about walking this path together and asking Christ to light that path.”

McNulty’s traumatic experience occurred on Sept. 1, 2010, when he and two others were taken hostage at the Discovery Channel’s Silver Spring, Maryland, headquarters by a gunman threatening to detonate an explosive device. After an intense standoff, McNulty escaped unharmed with his fellow hostages while police shot and killed the gunman.

“You never expect to know anybody that something like that happened to, let alone live through it yourself,” he said of the incident.

Survivor’s Guilt

McNulty certainly never imagined he would live through such an experience during his Scranton days, when the Upper Darby native kept himself busy performing with the University Players and working on WUSR-FM and the then-fledgling Royal News Network. After graduating cum laude, McNulty began working for WYOU, where he began dating Amy Finnegan ’97, who would soon become Amy Finnegan McNulty. The couple moved to the Washington, D.C., area, where Jim continued to work in television news and Amy began working in government.

Jim then transitioned from news into an award-winning career in entertainment television whose highlights include interviewing Morgan Freeman and “playing Duck-Duck-Goose with Honey Boo Boo.” Along the way, he and Amy settled in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with their two children, Colleen and Sean. Eventually, Jim founded his own boutique creative agency, Wurdsmith Creative LLC, and today he is the creative director for Gigawatt Group, a branding and advertising agency in Washington, D.C.

On the day of the standoff, however, McNulty was working as a senior writer/producer for TLC, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications. Upon entering the Discovery Channel’s lobby, an armed gunman began shouting for him to get down on the ground, and McNulty suddenly realized he had been taken hostage by an unhinged man screaming about the evils of overpopulation.

“I said more ‘Hail Marys’ on the floor of that lobby than you can count,” McNulty said. “At one point, I just kind of said, ‘OK, God, your will be done.’ I just kind of left it up to him, and in that moment, this peace came over me.

“The only way I can describe it is like a warm hug from behind, and on reflection, and in therapy, I have come to accept that the Holy Spirit really did answer my prayers that day.”

After the incident, McNulty struggled with symptoms of PTSD, including flashbacks and bouts of fear and anxiety. He also began experiencing intense feelings of survivor’s guilt each time he would hear of a mass shooting.

“I’m still here, they’re not — what am I supposed to do with that?” he said. “You feel very unworthy.”

An Epiphany

During this time, McNulty received spiritual guidance from his parish priest, who introduced him to the writings of the Rev. Walter Ciszek, S.J., a Polish-American Jesuit from Shenandoah who described his own surrender to God’s will after a traumatic interrogation by his Soviet jailers during the years when he ministered to the people of the Soviet Union.

“He described the sensation of peace that I experienced on the floor of the lobby, and it was like this validation, like, ‘Oh my God, that was real,’” McNulty said.

After seeing a CNN feature on the disaster relief efforts of actor Rainn Wilson of “The Office” in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, McNulty had an epiphany: he could use his experiences with trauma to help others by founding a PTSD support group. He reached out to his parish priest, who agreed to let the group use the church’s facilities as a meeting place. When deciding on a name for the group, McNulty found inspiration in the scriptures surrounding the story of Easter and the “upper room” where the Apostles gathered before and after the crucifixion.

“The Apostles themselves were traumatized by the crucifixion, and they went and hid,” he said. “It wasn’t until Christ appeared and said, ‘Peace be with you, receive the Holy Spirit’ that they went forward. So, the idea that formulated was let’s create a space where survivors can come together and pray for the Holy Spirit to help us to move forward to the next thing that God has planned for us.”

McNulty founded The Upper Room on the second anniversary of his ordeal. Since then, the group has served as a resource for other trauma survivors, a place where they can continue to heal.

“My faith, for me, has been this external source of strength when my own strength failed me,” McNulty said. “I know I’m not strong enough to have gone through everything that I’ve gone through on my own; it was my faith that has sustained me through the event and through the recovery.”

For more information, visit theupperroomptsd.org.

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