I wrote a version of this in the days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012. That tragedy unfolded six months ago today, but it still seemed like just days ago as I reworked this piece. This time marked the lowest point in my faith journey thus far, but it was also a time when I needed my faith the most. And whether I knew it or not, my faith helped me–not to make sense of this horrific tragedy, but to at least hold the hope that god was there that day.
On a beautiful Friday morning in Newtown, Connecticut, as school children eagerly awaited Christmas break and the excitement the season promised, the unthinkable happened. On this winter day, no different than any other cold, clear Connecticut December morning, with Christmas just 11 short days away, atrocity shattered a town’s innocence and a world’s faith. God, it felt, had forgotten us.
The close-knit town of just 28,000 residents was not accustomed to violence, with just one murder in the ten years preceding the massacre that unfolded on that morning. The unthinkable seemed more than unthinkable. It seemed impossible. A bad dream. God, it felt, had outright abandoned us.
As of November 2012, more than 450 students, ranging from Kindergarten to fourth grade, learned and giggled and played and engaged in harmless mischief and formed first friendships and made pinky promises and looked forward to birthday parties and family vacations and just did kid things within the tranquil halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was a place of learning, of security, of growth and development. It was a safe place. A happy place. A place where teachers hugged and laughed and nurtured and imparted and guided and protected and enlightened.
On December 14, 2012, it was a place where teachers sacrificed with their lives and hugged and nurtured dying children, even as they faced their own deaths. It was a place where 6- and 7-year-old children were murdered, despite the heroic efforts of their teachers and staff. And how many more would have perished without the courage of these angels in the disguises of teachers? To even consider a higher body count seems unbearable. The true body count already is.
We now know the details: a troubled 20-year-old, whose mental illness we could not begin to imagine, unleashed 50 to 100 bullets on the once peaceful halls of the school. Principals, teachers, counselors, aides showed selfless bravery, putting young, innocent lives before their own. Sometimes with success, but too often with unspeakable futility. But never in vain.
I read a story of a teacher who held her frightened student as life slowly slipped from them both. What a comfort to each other they must have been. I can only hope that they saw the love of their own gods in each other’s eyes. I hope that as their earthly breath slipped away, their god took pain and fear away, breathing new life into their freed souls.
I guess maybe I hold hope that god did not forget, abandon, or forsake those children and staff members that day, but rather comforted them, feared with them, cried with them, covered their fear with his mercy, just as teachers heroically shielded their students’ little bodies with their own. I wonder if his horror exceeded even our own.
But he put that horror aside. And then he did his job, and he took these angels into his heavenly fold and made them whole again. Fearless, empowered, at peace.
I know I hope. But I’m not sure I believe.
Before this day, I always did.