Leaving the church potluck Thursday afternoon, I encountered a woman particularly given to histrionics.
“Pastor, did you hear about the man shooting at elementary school kids?”
“No,” I said. “Sounds horrid.” But considering the source I let the subject revert to next week’s potluck and said my good-byes.
A few minutes out of the driveway, I turned on the radio to hear reports of a massive emergency response at Cleveland Elementary School where scores of students had been shot by a man with an automatic weapon.
Having been recently trained to provide pastoral care for mass casualties, I naively considered myself prepared and veered off toward the school.
Minutes later I was offering the on-scene commander my assistance as a local pastor with training in Trauma Pastoral Care. He paused only a moment before sending me into a room where parents and counselors were told to wait for a list from admitting hospitals.
I was seated with a Cambodian mother and her 11-year- old son. She didn’t speak English, but I think somehow she knew the room was a kind of ruse. The other parents still seemed hopeful, but the counselors knew that we were only awaiting final confirmation of the deaths.
We did not wait long. Soon the list came, but without an interpreter for the mother, I had few options. I held the list in front of her, placed my finger on her daughter’s name, squeezed my lips together as if to hold back the terrible words, and shook my head sadly.
The woman recognized her daughter’s name and asked,” Sh-di?” I did not quite understand her, and our eyes collided with a pained look of confusion.
“Sh-di?” she repeated.
Squinting to convey my attempt to understand, she echoed her question. This time I understood.
“She die?” she said, with a raised tone of a question.
“Yes,” I said, looking into her stoic face. “She die, yes. I’m so sorry. She die.”
Her eyes swept the room searching for a second opinion, but received only a confirming nod from her son.
She did not cry. Neither she nor her son even moved. But suddenly, in something that can only be described as a sort of emotional ventriloquism, her grief began to squeeze through her son’s eyes and a small tear traced a path along his frozen face.
The memory of that woman and her son ends there. It seems as if they left very quickly after that. But, in stark contrast to that one single tear, the tears of the staff flowed the rest of the day without ceasing.
Teachers cried for the students and for their heroic colleague who was injured shielding children from the hail of bullets. The principal cried for the children she held as they” bled out.”
And by the end of the day I was crying too as the dreadfulness of what happened began its paralyzing work on me. The paralysis was so complete that when administrators asked for volunteers to complete a brief training class on counseling children, I did not raise my hand.
I could not volunteer. The horror of the event had put a crack in my soul bigger than the entire school yard.
But as the Leonard Cohen song goes, “There are cracks, cracks in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Over the next several months, God’s light began to filter through that crack and guide me into two of the most fulfilling purposes I have yet known.
First the humbling confrontation with my own fears of inadequacy started a fire in my heart that grew into a full-blown calling and eighteen months later, I began my training to become the hospital chaplain I am today.
But perhaps even better than that, the horror and hopelessness I felt over being unable to save any of those children translated into another way to help children – adoption.
One year after Cleveland, my wife and I welcomed three new children – all siblings – into our home.
God certainly had nothing to do with causing this tragedy, but I am wholly convinced that God had everything to do with the rebuilding of lives after the tragedy.