For all of us who love Boston, and who have at some point in life called that city home, last week was a difficult one. Like so many others, after hearing the news on the radio Monday afternoon, I began contacting friends in the Boston area, and each of them had their own story. One friend, who had been in class with me at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, was cheering on runners a few miles from where the explosions occurred. Another friend had been pacing a fellow runner and had left him at mile 21 about an hour before the attack. A former colleague had a niece injured in the second blast. Another friend, a Boston area native, told me that she has attended the marathon every year of her life, but skipped this year for the first time to stay home and work on her thesis. Everyone was shocked and scared, sad and confused. I did my best to offer encouragement and empathy, to assure them of my prayers, unsure of what else I could give.
I spent the rest of the week trying to take in the news enough to be informed, but without getting sucked into the sensationalism and the speculation, and trying to avoid the image of the explosion they showed over and over on television. The various places that were named in and around Boston are familiar and carry memories for me. The mosque in Cambridge that the brothers attended was shown on the news, and I realized I had walked past it a few summers ago. Struck by its beauty, I remember that I stopped on the sidewalk to silently pray for all who attended there.
Now I live in Central Virginia and I spent last week surrounded by the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains in springtime – apple trees with bright white blossoms, baby lambs in the barn, dogwoods and red buds in bloom. I felt the strange dissonance between the idyllic beauty of my surroundings with my own feelings of sadness and grief and my difficult phone conversations with loved ones in the Boston area. These feelings were compounded by the awareness that for many people around the world, violence is daily reality – though it doesn’t receive the media coverage that the Boston Marathon bombings do.
Like so many of us over the last ten days, I have been asking myself how I should respond to last week’s events in Boston. As people of faith, we pray – for the victims and their families and caregivers, for the perpetrators, for all who are impacted. Even when we can’t find it within us to pray, we simply offer to God what is within us – our grief, our shock, our anger, our fear. As NPR reported news of a manhunt and lockdown, I laced up my shoes and went for a four mile run, the rhythm of my footfall on the gravel and my breath their own kind of prayer.
But it is not enough just to pray. Events like this make us ask hard questions – about violence, security, vulnerability, community. As we learn more about the two young men who carried out the attack, we seek to understand their intentions and motivations. What could have been done to prevent such an action? Tragedies like the one in Boston make us take a hard look at ourselves, our nation, and our world and ask what can be done to create a more peaceful and just world.
But before all this, perhaps there is a more elementary step. Before analysis and action, there is something simpler I am challenged to do in the face of such an event. I am blessed to live in a community with adults with intellectual disabilities (similar to L’arche), and last Friday evening many of us gathered after dinner to watch a movie, as we often do on the weekend. We watched Ruby Bridges, which tells the true story of a six-year-old African-American girl who helped to integrate the public schools in New Orleans in the 1960s. She and her family faced great resistance and cruelty from many whites who supported segregation, but bolstered by faith in Jesus’ example of overcoming evil with good, Ruby and her family persevered. After the movie was over, I had conversation with three of my community-mates, adults with intellectual disabilities, about what the movie meant to them. Some of their responses:
“We should be kind even if people are mean to us, and not hate anybody.”
“The movie is about respect and love.”
“Even though we’re all different, we should try to be friends.”
“The movie shows that we should love each other and get along, even when it’s hard.”
We went on to discuss practical, concrete ways that we could be kinder and more loving in our daily lives in community. The simple and sincere words of my community-mates were a great consolation to me in light of the sadness I had been carrying throughout the week. Often, the very young, the very old, and those with intellectual disabilities – people whose hearts are more open and less monitored by intellect – can speak with a clarity that is prophetic to the rest of us.
Of course, it seems overly simplistic and unrealistic – saccharine, even – to say that love and kindness are the answer, especially as we face acts of individual and collective terror and violence. Yet as I think what my community-mates shared, I remember the words attributed to St Francis of Assisi: “it is better to let one candle than to curse the darkness.” When the news reports and the stories that are loved ones share make us so aware of the darkness, maybe the first step is to take a deep breath and commit ourselves to living in the light.
A week and a half after the Boston Marathon bombings, I am committed to praying, committed to analysis and asking the hard questions about the root causes of violence – and also, inspired by my community-mates, I am committed to making love, kindness, and compassion the central values in my daily life. In the face of violence, we commit to peace. In the face of anger, we commit to compassion. In the face of distrust, we commit to kindness. We refuse to respond to hatred with more hatred. We love our families, our neighbors, our friends, and – as followers of the Gospel – even our enemies. We commit to building an ever-widening and diverse circle of community.
It’s not the whole solution, but seems to me to be an important first step. And, as any marathoner could tell you, the first step matters a great deal.