One of the weirdest parts of moving by yourself to a new place is that no one knows your stories. No one knows the things that have happened to or around you. The massive events in your life that you shared with an entire community are now totally unknown to everyone around you. I expected the former, but the latter took me by surprise.
I realized after being in Georgia for a few weeks that there was this monumental event in my life that no one knew about. It was a story I never had to tell because every I knew had experienced it as well. I've told this story to a few people since I've been here, but on Friday I had to tell it to a group for the first time.
I was attending a conference on campus called "Talking Politics During Polarized Times" which I was very excited about. During the lunch session we had a panel of Georgia State Legislators- a moderate Republican, conservative Republican, and liberal Democrat. The forum was hosted by Presbyterians for Better Georgia, and the panelists discussed how their faith informed their role in legislation on topics PBG works toward. Eventually, the topic of gun violence came up. The moderate Republican shared how his view of Property Rights trumps Gun Rights, so he often votes agains gun laws in Georgia. The Democrat shared views very similar to my own, and then the conservative Republican began.
She began by saying, "You might not like me... I'm a member of the NRA" and then preceded to say the many sound bites that you would expect from an NRA member- "Chicago has so many gun crimes even though Illinois has strict gun laws, which is why they don't work" "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" and finally, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." All the breath left my lungs and I could barely breath, let alone keep a straight face. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife, and she even said, "It's hard to be up here, it feels so hostile."
When it was time for questions, I began in a shaky voice to tell this story in public for the first time.
On what became my last day of college, June 5th 2014, a man with a legally obtained gun walked on to my campus and opened fire in the engineering building. He opened fire, shooting three student. Before he could continue, one of my classmates, Jon Meis, armed with nothing more than pepper spray, wrestled him to the ground. He and several other classmates held him pinned to the ground until the police could arrive.
One of his victims died in the hospital shortly after. He was a freshman named Paul Lee and he was only 19 years old.
All afternoon I heard sirens roar past my home, less than a mile from campus, as I sat numb on the couch. Emergency Alert texts were pouring in from SPU- "ACTIVE SHOOTER. STAY INSIDE." Over and over and over. I stayed glued to the TV screen, watching helicopter footage of the street corner I had been standing on 6 hours earlier, now the scene of a crime. For hours I got text after text from friends,
"Are you okay?"
"Are you safe?"
"Where are you?"
Real news was hard to come by at first. Was it one shooter or two? How many victims? Who would do this? Was this really happening? 2014 was a year with a horrific number of school shootings; they averaged more than once a week. It shouldn't have been a surprise that it would happen close to home eventually, but you never think it will happen to you. You never think that the place that you love- that is your safe haven, that has formed and shaped the adult that you are, would violated in such a way.
It was a Thursday night, which meant I was supposed to lead youth group. I made it through about 10 minutes before I had to leave. In retrospect, I should have canceled, but these are things no one prepares you for- what to do when a freshman at your school is murdered in the building where you took those science classes. No one prepares you to cancel youth group, so you try to go on anyway.
I raced down the hill to the impromptu service, that overflowed the church and the gymnasium all the way out on to the the loop. We prayed, we sang, we listened to the laments of the professors we so dearly loved, we sat in silence wondering "how could this happen here?" It was a day of overwhelming grief and shock. And yet the most impactful photos of the day were not of the crime scene, were not of the man who saved the lives of my classmates and friends, they were of a student body responding the only way the knew how- praying together.
Seattle Pacific University was known for our response to this tragedy. We are people of hope, even when all hope seems to be lost. We are people of prayer, particularly when the words are too difficult to form. We are people of the beloved community.
The next day was supposed to be my last day of college. I was going to turn in the project I'd spent the last two months working on, I was going to celebrate with my friends, and I was going to happily remember the incredible time I'd had there. Instead, I went to a memorial service, I spent the day doing therapy art, hugging my friends, and walking aimlessly around campus. It was a day of a lament, a practice most of us aren't particularly well practiced in. I felt so robbed that day. This was supposed to be a day of celebration and it became a day of mourning. I realized for the first time the far-reaching effects that violence has on a community. My loss was nothing to compared to Paul Lee and his family and friends. Not even comparable. Still, it was still so profound for me. I felt violated and robbed and hurt, even though I did not know the victims. As a member of the community, an attack on them is an attack on me.
Lament overshadowed all that followed. When we were supposed to be celebrating graduating from college, we did so we mixed feelings. Is it okay to celebrate when something so horrible has happened? How do you hold on to lament, while not letting grief overwhelm you? I had been asked to speak at the School of Theology consecration and and I found part of the speech I wrote after the shooting.
When I was asked to speak at this a few weeks ago I was so honored and excited. I began to think of things to talk about, but the tragic events last week changed everything. As I tried to reevaluate what to say, I was caught in a struggle that I’m sure you all know well—how do we properly lament and grieve without letting this define us? How do we celebrate when we are still not okay? With only week to figure this out, I’m not exactly sure either.
The passage that has kept coming to mind over the last week is John 1:5 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” SPU has always been a light in a dark city. We have always been a safe place, a grace-filled Christian community. The last four years have been filled with light, with love, with grace. This last week as our community was deeply violated and wrecked, it at first seemed like the darkness was all around. The darkness seemed too deep and too difficult to penetrate. But our story has not ended in darkness, but in light. The light of Christ that has shown through this community has been brighter than what I could have imagined. We have not reinvented ourselves, but instead become a truer version of who we already are. We are practicing grace filled community and unconditional love when it is hardest.
The afternoon of June 5th, 2014 will always have an impact on my life. Gun violence has killed thousands upon thousands and violated countless communities. For ever number in a list of statistics, there are hundreds of people like me whose lives have been changed. Paul Lee is only one of hundreds of school shooting victims that year. SPU's tragedy was quickly forgotten by everyone who was not connected to it.
So when I heard an elected official in my state say, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good gun with a gun" I could barely breath. Because it is absolutely a lie. It denies the heroic actions of Jon Meis and the others who have stopped shootings without firing a shot. No more people died on that day, not even the shooter himself. I do not wish him dead. To wish him dead for inflicting death is not justice, it is vengeance.
I could debate gun legislation all day long, but that's not really the point here. After I spoke, someone came up to me and thanked me for speaking the truth, "or at least what I think is the truth," she amended. All I could say was, "it's my story and so it is true." The story of June 5th, 2014 is true and it flies in the face of dangerous rhetoric that says the only solution is more guns. Our words and our stories matter. Don't we dare silence others with overly simplified answers. We must demand more of ourselves, each other, and most importantly, our elected officials.