On June 5th my school experienced a tragedy that I never thought I would see firsthand. I remember watching the news for hours during other school shootings, and I remember thinking to myself, “Thank God that hasn’t happened to my school.” With that kind of statement comes a sense of guilt, as well, because though it’s not true, you feel like you’re saying, “Thank God this has happened to someone else and not to me, not to my people.”
This has happened now. To me, and to my people.
I co-lead an undergraduate women’s Bible study, and Thursday night was going to be our last event of the year together. Our plan was to go to the beach, have a bonfire, eat good food and sing worship songs together as we celebrated the amazing year we have had. Another year of “making it through.” I went to pick up one of my small group women from the UW, and was parked outside of her house when I received a group text message. The first in the thread was from a friend I’d attended seminary with and is also a Seattle police officer. The message was simply, “You guys OK?” The next—“I’m okay, with friends in Bellevue.” The next—“We are in Bellevue, so we are okay. A bunch of people are in Kingswood [our seminary house] in lockdown.” The next—“Really good to know. I’m not working today, so I’m just getting scraps of info. Right, Kingswood, good place to be right now.” The next—“Glad you’re not working.”
My simple response—“What’s happening?”
What is happening? Why is there so much gun violence in this country? Why do the perpetrators all look the same? What are we doing to the boys and men in this country that makes them think this is a proper response to pain and suffering and anger? What systemic evil is in place that is so deeply engrained and yet so carefully obscured, such that the response of the people who knew this perpetrator was simply, “He seemed like such a normal guy.” I can only ask, is this what normal has become in our country? As Anna Minard from The Slog states, “this isn’t a new story, and it’s not a new event, not an unusual event, not a surprising event. There was a double-shooting this last weekend. There was a dramatic spate of gun violence in the city just a month ago. This is the world we’ve built.”
“There’s been a shooting on campus,” my friends told me. My first reaction was that it must have been at the bank, or maybe the 7-Eleven. There’s no way there’s been an actual shooting on campus. That doesn’t happen at SPU.
Except that it did. This is exactly what was happening.
I started receiving text after text after text, “Are you ok?” My response was—“I’m okay, I wasn’t on campus.” The latter portion of this statement is what has been turning over in many of our minds as we’ve begun to process. “I wasn’t on campus.”
It seems like something gets let off the hook when you say that. “I wasn’t on campus” means “I’m fine.” But a very wise friend of mine blogged about this and reminds us, “even if we were all safe, we were never going to be ok. We aren’t ok. I’m not ok.”
I was not on campus. But that does not mean this event is distant to me. It does not mean that I’m “okay” even if my body has not been broken, even if most of my friends were not in that building.
I had a class in Otto Miller just this past winter. A psychopathology class, in fact. Every Monday night we gathered in that building for three hours. We spent our breaks in the lobby, sitting on couches, standing in foyers, laughing, talking, commiserating. We never sat in the lobby and thought, “What if a gunman came in at this very moment?” We never thought to ourselves, “I don’t feel safe.” We never thought that someday the floors of that hall would be stained with the blood of our schoolmates.
We never thought these things, but now we must think them. We will never again live in the luxury that our school is the safest place we can be. We will never again enter Otto Miller without remembering the moment when a life was taken, when so many other lives were threatened, when evil pressed against us and over us and onto us so profoundly.
Checking Facebook in these times is the best and the worst thing. Your newsfeed is filled with prayers for SPU, with people checking in as they huddle together in the various buildings around the school, waiting for the lockdown to end so they know the threat has been contained. “There’s been a shooting on campus, I’m safe, please pray for us” was the status of many. Amidst these statuses were updates from people in other places just living their daily lives as though nothing happened. Here’s a selfie, isn’t the outfit I’m wearing to the bar tonight great? On a hike, aren’t these mountains beautiful? Watch this video of my dog performing the new trick I taught him!
Don’t these people know what has happened? Don’t they know that our world has been profoundly rocked, altered, disfigured? I don’t care about your selfie right now, I don’t care about these mountains, I don’t care about your dog. Don’t you know what has happened? How can you carry on as though nothing has happened?
These thoughts are not fair, I’m the first to admit that. But it so perfectly exemplifies where we were at, and where we continue to be. The world keeps moving on around us, people keep praying but keep going to work, keep living their lives, keep taking their selfies. We all do it—even we do it—but at the same time that we try to continue living our lives, going to work, writing our final papers and taking final exams—still, this tension lives in us. How can I possibly write a final in the midst of all of this? How can I possibly go to work? How can I live as though this hasn’t happened, as though this isn’t happening?
I wasn’t on campus, and “oh good” people say. I wasn’t on campus, and “it’s so weird, I knew that was your school so I just had to text you and make sure you weren’t killed!” people say. I wasn’t on campus, and “I need you to fill out this paperwork for corporate,” people say.
I wasn’t on campus, and “I’m glad you’re okay,” people say. I wasn’t on campus and “Thank God,” people say. I wasn’t on campus, and “are your friends okay?” people say.
So much tension. So many things to balance. People I haven’t talked to in months checking in to make sure I’m okay, and yet people I love dearly who haven’t checked in at all. We have all experienced this, every one of us. We are all trying to figure out how to balance these things.
The plan for Thursday night was to celebrate with my Bible study women, to sing songs of worship, to laugh together, to talk about the year, about what we loved and what was challenging, about things in the future that we were looking forward to and things we were scared about. Instead, many of those women were in lockdown. One of them was in lockdown in Otto Miller. An evening that should have been spent in celebration at the beach was spent praying, singing, and lamenting together in churches and buildings and outdoor venues around campus. Instead of celebrating our victories, we grieved our losses. Instead of rejoicing that we “made it through,” we mourned the young man who didn’t. Instead of ending the year with a sense of closure, we are ending it with a sense of ambiguity, of displacement, of wondering how things will ever look and feel normal again. Instead of looking forward to saying goodbye to this school for the summer, we want to cling so desperately to it, and to the people who are such wonderful family, whether we know them personally or not.
And tomorrow is Monday, and we must take finals, and sit in classrooms and libraries, and walk past memorials and signs of “We will overcome.” We must live in this new reality, this tension, this sense that nothing is okay but we must continue to live our lives.
I am so profoundly thankful for my SPU family, for my professors, for the people who are continuing to support this community. I am grieving, but am so grateful for this school, for these people, for the body of Christ that has surrounded us, for the face of God shining upon us. We remain faithful, we remain hopeful, despite the fact that our world has been torn.