Tragedy and Tribute

Thoughts on the unthinkable

I pass it on my way to work every day, the stone sign on Kingston Pike now heaped with flowers and balloons and handwritten tributes. Two weeks ago, it simply marked a church, a place of compassion and peace. A place to breathe a little easier and sit a little quieter and feel the strength of community. A place where children were rehearsing a play whose signature song is "Tomorrow."

Now it marks a shrine. It is a shrine to the people who got up on an ordinary summer Sunday and ate breakfast and put on their church clothes and did not know they were living their last hours on Earth. It is a shrine to others who never thought of themselves as particularly brave or strong or heroic, but who were preparing for the defining moment of their lives. It is a shrine to the children whose idea of violence was the occasional video game or scary movie, and who were about to see things they should never, ever see.

There is a terrible sameness about the aftermath of these tragedies. The details may vary, but whether it's Blacksburg, Va., or DeKalb, Ill., or Knoxville, Tenn., a grim protocol that we have come to know too well takes over. The media arrives in force, trailing cables and sound trucks and microphones. The press conferences begin, the hourly updates, the on-camera interviews. The stunned survivors find themselves live on national television, pressed for sound-bites. The experts weigh in.

There is a terrible sameness about the questions, too. Was there a way to predict it? Was there a way to prevent it? What should we watch for in the future? Do we need more guns? Do we need more gun control? Where can we go to be safe?

And then there are the answers, such as they are. Be aware. Pay attention. To what? To everything. The person who is too quiet. The person who is too agitated. The stranger. Callers to talk radio suggest extreme solutions: metal detectors at church doors, armed congregants.

If these are the answers, I might as well stay home. If I am going to be surrounded by people with guns in their pockets, I don't want to go anymore. And if I am going to be surrounded by people nervously looking for the exits, I don't want to go anymore.

Churches are traditional places of sanctuary. There was a time when fugitives could take refuge there and be protected, even from the law. There are moments in the Catholic liturgy when the priest extends his hands, palms open. It's more than a graceful gesture. In ancient times, it was proof that he carried no weapons.

Churches are also traditional places of challenge: to the message of the world, to the clamoring voices of get and spend and get even. Love your enemy, we hear week after week. Do good to those who hate you.

We think we know this. We just didn't think it would be this hard. We didn't think the challenge would come here, on a summer Sunday, to a church full of singing children. We didn't think it would involve a new shrine.

But there it is. And as the flowers wilt and are removed, as the messages fade in the rain and hard sun of August, the real tribute begins. To honor the dead and comfort the living, the scene of horror must be restored to a center of peace. The voices of welcome must be louder than the remembered din of gunfire. In the end, the only answer is this: to fill the place with light. m