“There’s nothing more terrifying than hearing multiple people get shot while you’re under your desk and then hear the gunman reload.” This is how Phil Davis, a reporter at the Capital Gazette in Maryland, responded to yesterday’s shooting in his newspaper building as it happened.
The acting police chief told a news conference last night, “This was a targeted attack on the Capital Gazette.” CNN reports this morning that a gunman, armed with a shotgun, opened fire through the front doors of the newsroom around 3 p.m.
Four employees died at the scene; a fifth person died at a hospital. Three others were wounded.
Authorities have identified the suspect as Jarrod Warren Ramos. According to court documents, he filed a defamation suit against the newspaper in 2012 for an article describing his guilty plea in a harassment case. His case against the paper was dismissed.
As I watched the shooting in Maryland unfold yesterday, I began asking the Lord what I could say that I have not already said about similar horrific events in the past. My attention was drawn to a book in my library I purchased shortly after 9/11 but had not read.
James Martin is a Jesuit priest and writer. He was editor of a Catholic magazine in New York City when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. Searching for God at Ground Zero describes firsthand his experiences volunteering at the site in the days following the worst terrorist attack in American history.
His book led me to focus this morning not on the shooter in Maryland but on those who responded to his violence. In their presence and courage, I found encouragement from God.
“Working together for a common good”
Father Martin’s first encounter with the ruins of the World Trade Center was one of horror. He thought, “This is like hell. Full of immense sadness and terror and pathos.” His next thought: “And yet, here is grace. Everyone assembled at this place is dedicated to the work of rescue; everyone is here for the other.”
He met a fireman from Broward County, Florida, who took two weeks of vacation, borrowed a truck, and drove nonstop to help. The priest experienced “the presence of the Holy Spirit” in “the profound sense of community” he encountered inside the perimeter of the site.
He writes that watching so many people “working together for a common good” was “an experience of love and community unlike any I have ever known.”
When Father Martin led Mass on the Sunday after 9/11, his homily to the rescue workers focused on the fifteenth chapter of Luke and Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. His message was about “the God who constantly searches for us, desires to rescue us, and rejoices when we are found.”
He assured them that “God desires nothing more than to help us find our way to him. And this is the God who accompanies us today, as we search and rescue—as we perform work that, in effect, mirrors God’s own activity in the world.”
Our Lord was just as present in Maryland yesterday as he was in New York City seventeen years ago and at Calvary twenty centuries ago. But he often mediates his presence through people.
The first responders risked their lives when they entered the Capital Gazette building without knowing if other shooters or explosives were present. They were willing to die for those they sought to save.
Their courageous compassion models our Lord’s passionate love for us. And it calls us to pay any price to share our Father’s grace with a hurting soul today.
“Don’t lose your feeling of compassion”
A week after 9/11, Father Martin became concerned that the shock of the tragedy was beginning to feel more normal. He spoke with a chaplain who told him that it’s natural to lose our initial feelings of shock and horror.
“As long as you don’t lose your feeling of compassion,” he said. “That’s what matters most.”
We risk the same loss of compassion today. After so many shootings across so many years, it’s easy to become callous to continuous suffering. Such a response is an understandable defense mechanism, hardening us to ongoing disaster and pain.
But we must never forget that for the victims of violence and those who respond to them, their tragedy is intensely, horrifically personal.
Our Father grieves with each person who grieves as though he or she is the only hurting person in the world. His word assures us, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22–23).
While we may not be the first responders to tragedy, we can pray for those who are and those they serve. And we can pray for ways to show God’s compassion to someone in pain today.
“Why do you think God let this happen?”
One day at Ground Zero, a sanitation worker with a gold cross on a chain around his neck asked Father Martin, “Why do you think God let this happen?” The priest asked the worker where he found God in the tragedy.
The man replied, “I think that God wants us to see the good here. Because everyone’s really pulling together. I hope we don’t forget this.”
The priest reflected afterward: “I can’t help thinking: If people still doubt the reality of evil in the world, let them come to the World Trade Center. And if any still doubt the presence of God in the world, let them come to the World Trade Center.”
The shooter at the Capital Gazette showed that evil is real. The first responders showed that God’s presence in tragedy is real.
If you’re hurting today, ask your Father to show you ways he is responding to your pain through those who care for you. If you know someone who’s hurting today, ask God to make you their “first responder.”
You won’t be the last.
NOTE: Questions about our faith are common—to skeptics but to Christians as well. We all need clear, biblical responses motivated by grace.