The morning of March 17, I’d sung “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” at Mass; that afternoon I sat between a Jewish friend and a Muslim friend (who wore her green sari in honor of the feast) for prayer at the mosque. We could’ve been the poster girls for the Abrahamic family, or the lead into a joke, but it seemed appropriate to gather and mourn the victims of the Christchurch massacre together. Board members of the Muslim Cultural Center read from the Koran and in a horribly familiar ritual, listed the names of the fifty deceased. The large crowd gasped at the name and photo of a three-year old boy, recently escaped from Somalia to a country his parents must’ve thought safe.
The speakers–a Rabbi, a Sikh, an Episcopal priest and city council members– often mentioned, “we’ve done this before”: for the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the many schools, the church in Charleston. It was a different perspective to mourn the carnage in another country, but the ache of loss was the same. Mercifully, no one had answers; any explanation would’ve seemed too tidy and pat. The best response seemed to be that of Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand prime minister. She wore a black head scarf to mourn at the mosque “because it seemed right,” then, with Parliament’s cooperation, almost immediately banned assault weapons.
Why could such definitive action be impossible in a country which has suffered so much from unrestricted gun violence, and now is seeing the tragic suicides of two Parkland survivors, the father of a Sandy Hook victim? Are citizens who poll consistently in favor of gun control utterly impotent? Sadly, FBI statistics show hate crimes increasing by 30% between 2014 and 2017. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that white nationalist groups surged by almost 50% in 2018.
We cringed in embarrassment, members of a nation which once exported iPhones and Cokes, and now sends international messages of white supremacy and Islamophobia. When President Trump offered Ardern his condolences and asked what help the US could give, she replied, “support for Muslim communities.”
Maybe that’s why we were there. Also to hear Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA) describe buying a rug in Islamabad. “How do I know the quality?” he asked the seller. “My wife and I usually buy rugs at Target.” “By the number of knots” came the reply. “The more knots, the higher quality.” So too, Swalwell continued, our society is better the more diverse knots we have, the thicker their texture.
A Muslim speaker ended, “in the name of God Most Gracious, Most Merciful,” reminding us that St. Francis had imported that name from his travels in Egypt. Living in a gun-obsessed and hate-filled society, we came for the challenge to act in accord with the Muslim prayer:
O You Who is Beauty Itself and You Who Love all that is beautiful
Please make my interaction with others beautiful
Please make both my inside and outside beautiful
On April 20, 1999, the Columbine tragedy gave parents their first suspicion that their children might not routinely return from school each day. Twenty years later, I deliver my grandchildren to first grade and preschool with a ritual of kiss, hug, fist bump, high five and whisper, “I love you.” Still, that frisson of fear lingers. Still, the dreaded question: Will this be our last goodbye?