I had to park in the Save-A-Lot parking lot, three buildings away. I walked through rain-soaked grass in my black patent pumps I save for special occasions. Cars were double-parked as I wove my way through the parking lots, and I joined the throng at the entrance, where three ushers propped front doors for the dozens of people trying to enter.
In front of me were two girls, probably high school students, shuffling in the line with tears making rivulets of their mascara. One had the hanger loops of her sweater sticking out; I tapped her on the shoulder and tucked them in for her.
Floating through the open doors of the sanctuary, I heard a gospel choir singing “The Days of Elijah.” This is one of my mother’s favorite songs, and I hear her voice in my head singing it, and I tear up. My mother is very much alive, but something about her favorite songs – “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” and Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” are others – brings tears. Perhaps today it is fueled by the love I have for my mom, or the emotion evident in the singers’ voices, or the grief of the girls in front of me, but I find tears coursing down my cheeks too. Several ladies wait by the front desk with boxes of tissues. I sign my name on one of the many guest book pages scattered on the desk, beneath another family from my church.
It takes almost fifteen minutes to progress the twenty feet from the front door to the sanctuary. The ushers have long since run out of programs, but I see the beautiful seventeen-year-old face shining from many peoples’ hands as they exit the area.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people here to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of one of our community’s youth, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time when two rival gangs chose to shoot at each other. As I join the line of people at the back of the sanctuary, the pastor gets on the mic and asks the congregants to keep the aisle clear; a medical emergency has occurred and we need to make room for the coming ambulance crew. He says they are getting ready to close the casket, and to allow the hundreds waiting in line to view room to do so in the next few minutes. Patient ushers try to make a path through the masses, and we do our best to accommodate, but there are so many people here there’s no way; some have to leave the room.
I don’t get anywhere near the casket. The image of closing a casket, a family’s last view of their precious daughter, breaks my heart. I didn’t know this student personally; she had only started at our school this year, but her death is a tragedy to all of us. I left soon after and didn’t stay for the service; I wasn’t family or friend, and didn’t need to take the space of someone who was. I must have met her when she got her picture taken at registration last month, but I couldn’t have picked her out of a crowd. I feel guilty that I share a building with over 800 people every day and I could name less than a quarter of them. I’ve spent nearly twenty hours with my own students and I still struggle with some names. At this funeral, I knew that many of the attendees didn’t know the student either, but the overwhelming sense of grief, and love, permeated.
When I first stepped foot into my beloved high school twelve years ago, even then it felt like home. I always arrived early, and especially after I got my license and could drive myself, stayed late. Sometime for activities, sometimes just to sit on a desk and talk to one of my favorite teachers. This school has always felt like home to me. I had a wonderful family and home outside of school, but this building, and these people within it, have always been a second family.
Nine days ago we lost one student to our city’s gang violence; a day later one of our cross-country runners was hit by a car during practice and has spent nearly a week in the ICU with a long recovery ahead. Sunday morning, we got word that a second student, not twelve hours after he had attended his peer’s funeral, was killed in a poorly-timed car accident. The first girl was a transfer student, so most students didn’t know her; the young man who died this weekend was a rambunctious sophomore, known by many more, and his death so quickly on the heels of last week’s loss was that much more devastating.
The school responded by starting both weeks with a two-hour delay – to give the faculty and staff time to get information, pray, and process – then beginning the school day with chapel to ground us in the Word and Gospel message of Christ Jesus.
As we left chapel today – in total silence, unlike the student body’s normal chapel recessional chatter – the wailing of several students broke the uncomfortable quiet. Uncomfortable isn’t the right word – it was a powerless silence. We wanted to do something, but didn’t know what. Students half-carried each other from the auditorium, and many congregated in groups in the hallways instead of returning to class, or made their way to one of the several safe spaces set up throughout the building, stocked with tissues and Bibles and counselors and pastors and quiet.
The cross-country runner is one of my students, but I didn’t personally know the other two. I grieve not for my loss, but for the loss to their families of their precious children. One of my students wrote a poem this weekend and sent it to me. After reflecting on how we say people are “in a better place,” she writes, “But the thing is, We don’t want anyone to go before we do. Do we?” The idea of heaven, with God and all the saints who have gone before us, is a happiness that defies description, but for those of us left behind, it’s difficult to feel that hope in the midst of our sorrow. And that feeling can create a sense of guilt: my loved one is much happier than she could be in this sinful world, and yet I want to keep her here with me?
I borrowed our set of hymnals from the chapel for my students today, and invited them to spend our shortened class time in quiet reflection, either over a hymn or a psalm or writing or just silence. Two weeks ago, before any of this happened, our vice principal shared a devotion with us about stillness, and he gave the faculty time to just be still; we sat with Psalm 46 in front of us and ten minutes of quiet. It was amazingly rejuvenating. We so rarely are still anymore, always connected to social media or the radio or SOMEthing. So I gave my students time to be still. A few went for a walk together around the building, a few flipped through the pages of the hymnal, a few just put their heads down on their desks. I used the time to journal and reflect.
I am so incredibly thankful for this school. I can’t imagine dealing with a tragedy like this in a public school, where we would not be able to offer students the healing power of chapel, the Psalms, prayer time, or Christian counselors. The hashtag #ConcordiaStrong has been popping up all over the internet, and I am so proud of our student body, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents, who are continually lifting up our community in prayer and encouragement. It’s a tragic, difficult time for everyone, especially those who lost loved ones, but it is so encouraging to see the hope so many have in our salvation, of which I am reminded multiple times a day in this environment.
I’ve been humming “Days of Elijah” since the funeral on Saturday. It’s such a hopeful, triumphant song, especially the refrain:
Behold He comes, riding on the clouds,
Shining like the sun at the trumpet’s call.
Lift your voice, it’s the year of Jubilee!
Out of Zion’s hill salvation comes.
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