Saturday, June 7, 2014

Claiming Grief

Note: I'm writing this essay here because I don't have another platform from which to write it. It seems out of place to write something so heavy on what was once a travel blog, but I had to put these words down somewhere.

For the past ten years, I’ve been answering the question, “I’m sorry, where did you say you went to college?” to confused friends and colleagues who could have been forgiven for not having ever heard of my small alma mater, comprised of only 4,000 students in that far-flung, distant city of Seattle. I hadn’t heard of Seattle Pacific University, either, prior to my somewhat impulsive decision to apply as a high school junior living in the suburbs of Chicago. How disturbing, then, to suddenly catch glimpses of my college, my onetime home, awash in tragedy on the homepages of BBC and the New York Times. To begin to field new questions: “That was your college? The one with that shooting?” A school suddenly famous for reasons so unwelcome.

After college, I moved to the other Washington, the other Capitol Hill, and have made Washington, DC my home for the past 5 years. In this city, the shootings of poor people and of non-whites usually do not make the front page. In this city, an organization like Homicide Watch exists to remember murder victims in Washington, DC and track their cases, because the news does not do a sufficient job (

For the past few days, I have clung fiercely to a sharply local sense of grief: this was my school, my community. A sense of violation and vulnerability sits heavily in my belly. A sour feeling of anguish has taken root deeply in my skin. I take stock of everything lost: Paul Lee, killed at 19. Jon Meis, saddled with the mantle of “hero,” who starts his married life under this terrible shadow of trauma. I imagine the awful, tedious aftermath as the shock starts to fade and conversations circle around and around the same topics: “were you there?” The uneasy feeling of exclusion for those who weren’t. The complicated feelings for those of us now distant from the university, or for those who never much liked SPU. The alienation for those who do not or cannot or will not process this murder through the framework of Christian teachings; the difficulty of navigating your own path through grief in the midst of collective commemoration.

I have clung fiercely to a sharply local sense of grief, but I launch wild accusations at myself all the while. Who am I to claim the grief of this community as my own—me, who graduated SPU six years ago and have no direct ties to any of the students involved in the attack? More cuttingly: who I am to hold this grief so dear to my heart, this killing of one, when 11,419 people in the United States were killed by guns last year? When 84 people were shot and killed in my own city of Washington, DC  last year? (

After the Sandy Hook massacre in January, 2013, my father wrote an essay about the shooting. My father was once a pastor and is now the President of the Evangelical Covenant Church—a protestant denomination headquartered in Chicago, with churches throughout the United States and Canada, and with a presence in other parts of the world. In his essay, which I’ve included below, he reminds me that grief is always local: it runs through the veins of the human connections we have forged to the specific places and people we have known. We grieve because we have first known and loved, and now lost. The grief is ours. We claim it as our own. This was my school; I can cry for its loss.

But what I had failed to grasp was that all grief is local. The paradox is that this intensely local feeling connects us to so many more who are far removed from our individual occasion of mourning. All 11,419 gun deaths in the United States last year were experienced intensely, intimately, horribly, by those who were connected to those victims. This is trite to say, of course, but it is the peaceful resting place my wild mind can come to when I lose myself rehearsing the sorrows of this week. All grief is personal. All grief is shared. In our own individual experiences of sadness, I claim a new privilege: compassion. Compassion, which means “to suffer with.” We unwillingly join the multitudinous ranks of those who have been torn through with senseless loss from gun violence. We join them unwillingly, furious, doubled-over in anguish. But we join them with a new, wide-eyed knowledge and compassion: now we know, too. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry for mine. Let’s walk this road together.

“Rachel’s Weeping”
By Gary Walter
Covenant Companion (February 2013)

I find myself still sighing deeply over the massacre of innocents at Sandy Hook School, Newtown, Connecticut.

Societally, we’ve gone through a collective emotional concussion, disorienting and nauseating, which are the two symptoms I remember from my concussion as a kid getting beaned on the cheek by a Little League fastball.

 I actually hope we don’t recover quickly.  I hope we remain disoriented and nauseated for a good while longer, because regaining equilibrium too quickly will only serve the status quo. The pattern is familiar. The public clamors for well-meaning discussions around gun violence, but as the horror fades, life and other issues inevitably crowd in.  We may not mean to, but we move on.  The discussion is then ceded to those holding unyielding abstractions, talking past each other citing competing studies and shibboleths. 

Intractability sets in. Nothing changes.  And the litany of our young dying too young in mass shootings builds: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, Sandy Hook.
After the birth of Jesus, Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys under the age of two in the region of Bethlehem in a flailing attempt to eliminate this newborn threat for the title King of the Jews.  Jesus was the intended target of a massacre of children. Matthew 2:17 quotes the prophet Jeremiah to capture the region’s grief:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

In my own concussive cobwebs I hear Rachel’s mourning from two directions within our Covenant family.

First there is mourning from Newtown and every place like Newtown. While we have no Covenant churches precisely there, the state of Connecticut is small with plenty of Covenant connections to the community. It is where Pastor Doug Bixby grew up. He wrote me, ”It is simply one of the darkest days in the history of this town”.  Six year old victim Ana Marquez-Greene is the daughter of a high school friend to another Covenant pastor, Matt Lundgren. Covenanters Jack and Becca Dowling were on site as rapid response chaplains, counseling families and first-responders. Similar stories multiply. 

The grief is palpable to many others because we have churches in many other communities like Newtown. The faces, names and personal stories of the children and staff could be transposed directly to the neighborhood school of a goodly number of Covenanters in any number of states and provinces.  The victims are recognizable, even though not known. Newtown becomes Mytown.   With this commonality, the sentiment “It could never happen here,” sorrowfully concedes, “Well, maybe it could.” 

But interestingly, that very grieving is helping more and more people hear the mournful strains of Rachel coming from a second direction. The loss of children and youth to gun violence is an ever-present pain for many urban Covenant churches and ethnic communities, from crowded New York City to sparsely populated Alaskan villages on the Bering Sea.  Pain shared is life shared.  The pain of Sandy Hook is awakening people to the truth that many in our urban communities and ethnic populations live with this anguish continually.

In the aftermath of Newtown, I sent an email to a sampling of churches who are determined to bring the hope of Christ to high-risk areas. I asked if any children and youth from the congregation had ever been wounded or killed in gun violence. Here is just a fraction of the responses.  These are not statistics. These are Covenanters. These are your children and youth.
·       Gregory, pastor’s great grandson, age 14, killed by a stray bullet on way home from a basketball game.
·       Bolivia, age 20, murdered in front of 11 adolescents on sidewalk of the church. 
Tamika, age four, shot in the head by gang crossfire. Survived but will be mentally disabled for life.
·       T.J., killed randomly while riding home on a bus.
·       John, 17, murdered just before a scheduled meeting with the pastor to turn his life around.
·       Marvin, pastor’s son, killed on the sidewalk.

I can’t tell you how proud I am of congregations like these that run to the need, not from it.  These sisters and brothers are uncommonly courageous, wise, caring, persistent, and prophetic.

The pain of Rachel knows no geographic, socio-economic or ethnic boundaries. There is common ground at the cross….and there is common ground at the grave of our children.  This one time can common ground lead to common sense in balancing rights with responsibilities? Indeed, don’t all rights come with responsibilities? We all learned the right to free speech ends at yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. My church’s right to the free exercise of religion still came with a $250,000 price tag for mandated fire sprinklers and other building code requirements.   Now is the time to find common sense approaches for the common good in curbing gun violence, if only for our children. And the Rachels who mourn.