This has been a hard week in Seattle. On Wednesday morning as I was heading in to work, I was listening to Mayor McGinn talk about the increase in shootings in Seattle, and what might be causing them, and how the city was addressing those causes. And then, at about 11:00 that morning, while I was in our staff meeting, our facilities manager Mike opened the conference room door to inform us that there had been a shooting in the U district. The gunman was still at large, and our building was on “lock down.” That means that for the sake of all the children and youth who were there in school, as well as for our own safety, all our doors were locked and people could only get in if someone stood by a door to open it for them.
As the events of the day unfolded we heard more about the tragic violence that traced its way from the U district to downtown and then to West Seattle, leaving six people dead and more wounded. What sadness, so close.
So yesterday on my way to work I decided to stop by the cafe where Wednesday’s shootings began. The new pastor at the Episcopalian church had suggested there might be a vigil there and I wanted to lend my presence if that was the case. When I arrived, it was the press holding vigil, with three news vans there. They had their high antenna towers raised, and reporters were talking with the handful of folks who standing there. I parked my motorcycle and walked over to the collection of flowers, candles and notes that spilled across the sidewalk in front of the café door. The names of the victims were written on the window of the closed store: “God bless Drew, Joe, Kim, Len and Don.” And there I stood, saying my own prayers for the victims of this violence, and also for the shooter.
Then a woman came up to me with a plate of muffins. “Would you like one?” she asked.
“No thank you.” I said, and began crying. The tears surprised me. I hadn’t been aware that they were inside of me waiting to fall. But there was something about this deeply kind moment, this woman standing at the scene of such tragedy, offering me, a stranger, comfort food, that released them.
She stood with me a moment, and then offered the muffins again. “They’re glutton free,” she said.
“No, thank you, but that’s very thoughtful of you.” And I let the tears wash over me. Sadness for all the pain in this place, and for the ways we human beings can create tenderness, and the ways we can destroy the beauty of life. Standing there holding in prayer all these people who I didn’t know, but felt connected to in some very human way, I cried.
One of the reporters walked up to me. He told me his name and the network he was from, and then holding his microphone out he asked, “How hard is this?”
Of course there is no answer for that. How could I explain the tears I barely understood myself? The reporter might have assumed that I was there for myself, that maybe I knew the victims. If that had been the case, I cannot imagine what I could have said about my personal sense of loss. Or if I had been a neighbor, what would I have said about the pain of having my sense of security in my own neighborhood shattered so violently?
But for me, in that moment, with cameras rolling, and an editor ready to trim whatever anyone might say into sound bite size, how could I look this reporter in the eyes and talk through my deep convictions about our human connectedness, and my deep sadness about the pain we cause one another? He was not looking for a sermon. When I put my head down and waved him away, he quietly left.
But his question stayed with me. So here is the beginning of a response that I suspect I might be forming for a long time:
“I’m a pastor. I am here praying for these precious people, and for this painful world. In this moment that is very specific and personal for families I don’t know, I am holding these strangers in my heart. I am thinking about folks in my church who live in this neighborhood, and those who live over in West Seattle, and praying for them too.
“And I am also thinking about all of the ways we human beings could be different. Does it really surprise us that when there is less and less money for mental health care, and that when guns are more and more easily available, something like this happens? I am wondering how we will be different, or if we will be different, when the shock of this moment passes. And is there anything I can do personally to make a difference in this painful world?”
And then I think about the other message I saw on the window of the café yesterday. Next to the names of the victims, someone had written, “Please be kind to your neighbor.” Those words echo words at the center of my own faith- “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I remember that love is at the heart of all I do, and that I am also aware of a deeper Love. It is that Love that took me to that memorial site Wednesday morning, it is what holds me in the most painful moments I have faced in my own life, and it is the promise of the words I read at the memorial services I do. Because no matter how I begin my answer the reporter’s question, I want to finish with the words of the Apostle Paul from Romans 8: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.”
Whoever wrote those “kindness” words in that window reminded me that kindness is quite often the face of love. It is what I saw in the muffin lady and what I want the world to see in me. So I realize that kindness is my response, and my ongoing commitment. I will do what I can to help change the bigger world- to support programs for the most needy and vulnerable, to create a world where guns and violence are not turned to so easily and quickly, and to promote peace.
But for myself, in this moment, in my circles of connection, with the people right in front of me, I will lean on God’s love and then do all I can to be kind. In some ways it doesn’t seem like much, but in a deeper way, maybe it is everything we can do.