I moved to your town in October of 2012. I’m a born and bred Southerner who loves all things Southern–things like grits and coca-cola and air conditioning. Late in September of that year, I packed up my life and my cat and drove north. I remember getting off I-395 at Rt. 6. It was raining as I drove under the rusty Providence & Worcester railroad bridge. Looking at a gloomy sky through the windshield covered with raindrops, I wondered aloud, “What have you done?”
What I had done, it turns out, was move to one of the kindest, most generous places I’ve ever known or had the privilege to live in. Y’all have welcomed me as one of your own. The people of Westfield painted and cleaned up my first home on Upper Maple Street. When I joined the Killingly Business Association on Westfield’s behalf, the other members patiently listened to my excited rambling as I described my next quirky idea. When it came time for Westfield to restore its historic 1854 structure, y’all came out in force. When we decided that the most obvious next step in our fundraising would be for me to climb our iconic tower and stay there until we raised 10% of what we needed in a single day, you showed up. We hit our goal before lunchtime. By supper, we had flown by it. One of the most remarkable days in my entire life is thanks to you and your generosity and Killingly.
Oh, Killingly. What a week we’ve had.
All of us longed to waltz into this new year with such high hopes for what the future held. Most of us were glad to leave 2016 behind. Then news broke that the Thompson Congregational Church caught fire. We were shocked, but the stellar local fire departments we are so lucky to have showed up quickly and limited the potential damage. And we were sad, but comforted by the knowledge that buildings can be rebuilt and that church sanctuaries, while often beautiful and historic, aren’t the church itself. There’s a children’s song that reminds us, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a meeting place, the church is the people.” And that’s the truth. People are what matter.
But in a final fit of desperate tragedy, we had a weekend that shook our region, our town, and our schools. In days, two students and a school administrator died. The details don’t matter, at least not for what I want to share with you. The fact is three people who were known and loved in our town died, and too soon.
Now, for those of you I haven’t met, you should know I’m the pastor of Westfield Church in downtown Danielson. It’s my job to be their and Killingly’s cheerleader. And it’s my job, my call even, to comfort people in hard times and to tell the truth. And the truth is, that this is really shitty. Death is really shitty. And if you’re upset, if you’re angry, if you’re pissed, you have every right to be. If you knew Ryan or Emma or Steve, I want you to know that I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry that someone who impacted your life in beautiful and unsuspecting ways is gone. I’m sorry your friend died. I’m sorry your child died. I’m sorry your co-worker died. I’m sorry your student died.
Some of you have reached out to me trying to understand. You want answers. You want to know why God took children’s lives. You want to know why God lets cancer exist in the first place, much less kill people. You want to know why these we love so much have gone from us. You want to know why. And you know something? I do, too. I wish I had the answers. I don’t know why. I don’t know why kids or cancer or beloved teachers. But there are some things I do know. I know that God doesn’t leave us orphaned. So I am confident those we’ve lost are in the arms of our Heavenly Parent. I know that God knows what its like to lose a child. So I am convinced God’s heart is broken over the loss of these children, too. I know that God is faithful. So I am certain that God was always with Emma and Ryan and Steve. And that God always will be.
In my line of work, I think a lot about God. I think a lot about what it means to a person of faith in this world, about how God interacts with us and cares for us and loves us. And in my time in seminary and in the church, I’ve come to lots of different beliefs about the Divine. But at the core of my understanding are these two:
The first is simple: God doesn’t choose for us to die. God didn’t want Steve or Ryan or Emma to die. God doesn’t want any of us to die. In fact, in our scriptures Jesus tells us that he came that we might have abundant life. And the last time I checked, the opposite of abundant life is death. All of that to say, phrases like “God took them home” or “God needed another angel” or “God decided it was time” are each our human attempts at describing the indescribable. And they always fall short. God doesn’t need another angel. We’re just devastated to have lost one we’ve loved so much and are desperate to find any reason for why they’re gone. We search for answers because without them, we have to live with an unknown why. And that’s hard. So what should you say? Start with “I’m sorry” or “I’m here” or “I love you.”
The second fundamental belief is one my entire faith is rooted in (excuse the language): God doesn’t make shitty things happen. But God can make really beautiful things come out of really shitty situations. When my mother died eight years ago, I was devastated. I was pissed. It was unfair and untimely. It was a lingering death, a decline we witnessed over months–my Dad and I both harboring a desperate hope that things weren’t what they were. Now, God didn’t make my Mama die. But God was able to take that fertile, shitty soil and grow a something beautiful from it. For me, it’s my relationship with my Dad, who has become in the last eight years my best friend. The story of the resurrection is one of God making beauty come from tragedy, life from the cold and dark of the tomb.
But here’s the thing, we might not see the full breadth of that beauty for years. And you might not be able to see it on your own. So for those of you who have tears blurring your vision, let me show you where I can already see that beauty budding. I see God’s redeeming love in the way this kind, generous, hopeful town has rallied around these families and one another is nothing short of inspiring. It’s a thing of beauty, how you care for one another–how we care for one another.
It’s never easy. It won’t ever be easy. But caring for one another, loving one another, holding one another is our only choice–the only one that works. So let’s do that. Let’s care and love and hold.
You are loved, Killingly. You are loved by God, by each other, by me. And we’ll make it through this tragedy the same way we always have: side by side.
I’m sorry. I’m here. I love you.