Nineteen years ago, I didn’t know what to say.
The news content meeting was going smoothly. The story ideas were flowing easily with the senior editors only questioning a few projects. Coverage for the next day’s edition was coming together with few glitches and looked promising. I sat quietly – a guest in this newsroom and an observer until the subject of gun violence in the United States came up. Then every eye turned to me.
I remember my loss for words
As the lone American in this Christchurch newsroom, I was mystified to explain the shooting at Columbine High School, which had happened nearly a year earlier. In New Zealand on a professional and cultural exchange thanks to Rotary District 7570, I didn’t know how to respond as the Kiwi journalists looked to me for answers.
What quickly became apparent was that I, a small-town, rural America journalist had covered more murders than these daily paper journalists had. When murders happened in their small country, I was assured they got national headlines. My heart broke when I realized, in contrast, how most individual murders in our small community only receive regional headlines.
I shared what I could with my Kiwi peers, but no one left the news meeting with more answers than when we went in.
The memory of that meeting has returned to me repeatedly since news first broke of the mosque shootings in Christchurch that claimed 50 lives, injured many more, and changed a nation forever. As we have approached the 20th anniversary of the shooting in Columbine this Saturday and the 12th anniversary of shooting at Virginia Tech yesterday, the memories have lingered.
These years later, my heart breaks again.
It breaks for the people of New Zealand, who have not been accustomed to such violence and are having to find a new normal now.
It breaks for us – a people who seem to be growing increasingly numb to mass shootings, who tolerate such violence taking place at some level nearly every day.
My heart broke when I shared my reflections with a friend and he quizzed me about New Zealand, asking if its population was primarily Muslim. The unspoken implication felt like a slap.
The shooters in these three tragedies included two young Americans, a South Korean man who was a permanent resident of the U.S. and an Australian.
Over the years and especially recently, as I’ve tried to make sense of the incivility, lies, greed, hatred and tolerance of violence that seem to permeate our country, one truth has become clear. That is the challenge laid out by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail: “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”
So often in the face of horrors such as mass shootings, we feel impotent to respond.
If we accept Dr. King’s challenge to be an extremist for love – the calling of every Christian who heeds Jesus’ greatest commandment, we can respond right where we are.
We extend love and peace to our neighbor, whoever that may be.
And, we tell stories – stories of how love and goodness have been revealed in our lives. Whether we’re Jew, Muslim, Christian, faith explorer or simply a decent person, we humans have love stories to tell. Oh, not the mushy, warm fuzzy love stories – though they have their place too, but the stories of people who care enough to act for good.
The stories don’t have to be world changing. They can be of someone unexpectedly buying you a cup of coffee or letting you go in front of them in a grocery line. Tell someone. Write a Facebook post about the experience. Spread goodness. Encourage love.
In 2000, a group of Christchurch journalists cared enough about our world to wonder at the pain and loss of lives to violence thousands of miles away in the United States. Today, I share that experience to return the love and spread hope as we remember.