I sat with my dad in his pickup truck as the traffic lights turned red, green, and yellow, with no one moving. The radio announcer reminded us, “We’re observing a moment of silence for Deanna McDavid and Marvin Hicks.” Well, it was something like that. I was eight or nine years old. I don’t remember the details—not really—but I remember sitting there at that light, waiting. Something had changed.
The day a high school student shot and killed his English teacher and school custodian was not long past. The high school was the closest one to my home, though in a different county. In that part of the world, that meant a different school district. I vaguely remember us being held in classes a little longer that day, school officials not yet ready to run the buses, not yet sure what was happening. The school was at most twenty minutes away, far closer than the high school in the same district.
This was long before the days of visitor logs, school metal detectors, or even locked doors. The back door to the boiler room at my school was most always propped open in the winter, cooling the janitor who also shoveled coal into the furnace. On nice days, the doors at the end of the hallway would be propped open, too, letting a breeze blow through the building. It seems visitor logs, school metal detectors, and locked doors haven’t solved the problem.
The school shooting I remember was twenty-five years ago, in January of 1993, also in Kentucky. It shocked the community, of course. If I were older, I’d probably remember what the school did in response. As is, I just remember that day in my dad’s pickup truck. I do remember other tactics schools used to keep us safe. We had fire drills and earthquake drills and tornado drills. Window shades were drawn to protect us from seeing the helicopter landing on the school playground, carrying the father of one of the students to a hospital where he would die. We stayed crouched in the hallways for the better part of an afternoon as tornadoes threatened.
None of that created the fear I’ve seen in kids now, especially those in 6th or 7th grade. They’re old enough to know what’s going on, but not old enough to make any sense of it. The truth is, I don’t know if they’ll ever be able to make sense of it. These aren’t the kind of things I want them to make sense out of.
Pastors are used to reminding people that the phrase that appears most often in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.” We usually see that as prescriptive for how we approach a world that can be terrifying. Storms rage, but God remains—that’s at least one of the stories we tell.
Our modern world is different, though. We have control over so many of the things that we liken to the storms. It’s even absurd to say, “Do not be afraid,” to someone who has a gun pointed at them. How instead do we say wholeheartedly to each other, “Do not be afraid,” because we have created a reign that doesn’t merit fear?
“Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid.’” isn’t the right response to hunger, or homelessness, or broke people, or gun violence. We have the power to calm those storms, to remove the threat that causes fear. I wonder how we are learning to cry out, as Jesus did, “Peace, be still.”
If we learn that, maybe towns won’t stand still for moments of silence.