It’s been a week since Orlando. It’s been a year since Charleston. Anniversaries of tragedies can resurface all the feelings of shock, anger, and grief that we initially felt. The grief of public tragedies lately has been overwhelming for me. Through the combination of clinical depression, a deep sense of empathy, and a vivid imagination, I get stuck imagining myself over and over in the place of the victims when I hear the horror stories in the news. I had to stop listening for a while. But still again and again my mind returns to the Pulse nightclub a week ago, and Mother Emanuel AME church a year ago. The only thing that makes it bearable for me is to do what Fred Rogers said his mother taught him to do when he saw horrible things on the news: “Look for the helpers.”
There are always helpers. That’s where I find God, in these events that threaten to push me to despair. After the sentencing of the Stanford rapist and the letters from his father and other defenders, I felt angry and despondent. Then I heard the grace note, in the story of the Swedish students, Carl-Fredrik Arndt and Peter Jonsson, who were riding their bikes when they saw the rapist on top of a young woman who was not moving. They stopped him, and held him there until police arrived. In her incredibly courageous letter read in court, the young woman said, “I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed to remind myself there are heroes in this story. That we are looking out for one another.” I need to be reminded that the rapists and mass murderers of the world are vastly outnumbered by those who are looking out for their fellow human beings, and I pray to learn from the example of these helpers. Maybe you do, too.
This weekend, the community in which I live and work is in mourning as we remember what happened on June 17 of last year, when a young white man walked into Mother Emanuel AME church and after sitting with the twelve members of a Bible study group for an hour opened fire on them, killing nine people. It still shocks, saddens, and angers me that this one person could do so much damage in the name of hatred. But that night and in the year since, there have been many more “helpers” working in the name of love.
Some of the survivors of the shooting and relatives of those killed have done perhaps the hardest work there is – they stood in a courtroom and spoke to the killer words of forgiveness. I have the privilege of working with some of the heroes who stepped up to offer their help in the wake of the shooting. The environmental services staff at MUSC Medical Center are accustomed to cleaning up blood and more in the ER, after a trauma victim has come through the unit. After police were finished with the crime scene at Mother Emanuel AME, men and women from our environmental services department volunteered to clean the horrific mess. I was one of about 15,000 people who walked the Ravenel Bridge a few days after the shooting in what was called the Bridge to Unity event. There was such a sense of love and peace that night, it was impossible to be cynical about it. People truly came together. The granddaughter of Rev. Daniel Simmons, one of those who died at Emanuel, started a non-profit organization in the wake of the tragedy appropriately called Hate Won’t Win. For the first anniversary of the shooting, the pastor of our church placed nine wooden crosses in front of the church building, one for each of the victims, and when he came back outside a short time later, someone had laid flowers at the foot of every cross.
In Orlando, there are also many stories of heroism and love in the wake of the massacre at Pulse night club that left 49 dead and 53 wounded. There’s Josh McGill, who escaped the club unharmed after the shooting started, but turned back when he heard another man call for help. That man was a stranger to McGill, a bartender named Rodney Sumter, and he had been shot. McGill applied pressure to Sumter’s wounds and kept him alive until rescue workers arrived to transport him to the hospital. There are those inside who did everything they could to protect their loved ones, like Edward Sotomayor, Jr. who was shot while pushing his boyfriend through a door to safety, and Brenda Marquez McCool who was there dancing with her 21-year-old son, Isaiah, and some witnesses say yelled for him to get out of the way just before she was shot. Isaiah Henderson survived.
There are the people who lined up down the street and around the block to donate blood the day after the shooting. And they were offered free food by Chick-fil-A, even though it was Sunday, a day on which the restaurant would normally be closed. There are the churches, funeral homes, and florists who volunteered their services free of charge to families arranging funerals for the shooting victims. There are the members of an Orthodox Jewish congregation in Washington who went to a local gay bar and held an impromptu memorial service for the victims. There are the Muslim groups like this one in Michigan that had special prayer services for the victims and their families. There is the entire airplane full of people who found out they were traveling with the grandmother of Luis Omar Ocasio-Campo on her way to his funeral; they all wrote her notes of condolence and many offered hugs as they disembarked. When the hate group that calls itself Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest at Christopher Leionen’s funeral, counter-protestors (some dressed as angels) formed a human wall to shield those at the funeral from the messages of hate. And a man named Greg Zanis drove from Chicago with 49 wooden crosses he had made himself, each one with the name of someone who died at Pulse written on it. Zanis has made thousands of crosses to honor victims of violence since his father-in-law was murdered 20 years ago. He says, “It is an act of Christian love.”
These are the stories that give me hope in the midst of so much darkness. It’s easy to say “Love wins” or “God is love,” but these people made sure their love was a verb. I pray to be more like them, and not just in the big moments of overwhelming tragedy when kindness is most needed. I want to be like them in the day-to-day-ness of life. Instead of sitting in the horror and sadness of our world feeling helpless, I want to do something, God help me. I promise to show love every day not just to those in my life who are easiest to love. I promise to practice forgiveness, even though it’s hard. I promise to find ways to use my particular gifts to serve others in unique ways. I promise to stand unironically for love and peace. I promise to remember that small acts of kindness – a flower, a note, a look – can mean the world at the right moment. I promise not to make believing the right thing more important than doing the right thing. I promise to love my neighbor – my African-American neighbor, my Muslim neighbor, my LGBTQ neighbor, and all the rest – by shielding them from hate and working alongside them for a society in which we can all feel equally safe and loved. The world can always use more helpers.