On Mass Shootings—Again

Published August 16, 2019 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

I was near a shooting once.

On Jan. 4, 1996, my best friend and I went to see a movie at a theater in an office building in Portland, Oregon. We walked in to the large, airy atrium and rode the wide-open escalator up several floors. It paralleled a set of stairs. On reaching the theater level, we heard a bang of some kind. We, and a handful of others, looked over a railing and saw people running up a different set of stairs. A woman dropped a bottle of orange juice and didn’t look back. Somebody yelled, “He has a gun!” My friend and I then ran down the stairs next to the escalator, out the doors we had entered, and back to his car. He used a mobile phone to call police and then we waited. We were jittery and confused and wanted to see what would happen next. Then we realized that the gunman could leave the building and we didn’t want to be anywhere nearby if that happened.

Later we learned that the shooter was angry with someone in the Charles Schwab office on the ground floor. He wounded two people and took two others hostage but eventually surrendered to police.

For years this was a story we told — a wild tale of an unlikely event, an aberration in the social order that we happened to be in the proximity of.

I could not have imagined that 23 years later I would be a pastor of a church regularly imagining who in my congregation would not be able to escape the sanctuary quickly enough should someone start shooting; deciding how to best teach our nursery staff to shelter in place with our babies and toddlers; wondering how to pastor to people who no longer feel safe worshipping with us because of a hate crime earlier this summer; calling the regional FBI office to see if my church is on a white supremacist hit list, such as the one the garlic festival gunman followed; or learning that one of our seniors just last week asked to see the contents of a suspicious-looking backpack that someone brought in.

We are a house of prayer for all people, but now we fear one of those people will enter with an activity very different than prayer in mind.

My mom once told me that she didn’t think she would become a one-issue public health administrator. She went from clinical nursing to nursing administration as the director of a state health department. Then HIV/AIDS hit. Her work in response to that public health crisis segued in her leading a federal government office entirely focused on preventing and combating the virus’s spread. Mom had had one image of her career path but the virus took her on another.

I have come to feel the same way about mass shootings. I did expect to preach on and offer leadership in response to any number of social ills, like bad housing, insufficient food, and the sins of racism and homophobia. But the bullets keep redirecting me.

And yet, bullets and viruses do not compare. The vector of HIV is part of a natural process, part of the chaotic life force on Earth. The paths that bullets keep taking through flesh are not. They are entirely human-made destroyers, and ones that make some people a great deal of money. There is profit for some in protecting your right, and mine, to own and to arm weapons designed for war.

At this point I would normally interject a theological perspective or lift up scripture to condemn our bloody state of affairs. But as anyone who has ever picked up a Bible knows, it can be used to support or to deny almost any position. It is not a coherent tome, but an intensely contradictory one. Which, for me, is the point. The divine, and our relationship with it, cannot be contained or fully described by human stories and language. The same is true of American scripture: our Constitution and our laws. They are open to whatever interpretation someone wants to find; whatever interpretation best fits an individual position.

But here’s the thing about mass shootings: They are not individual affairs. The gunman in Portland may have been directing his violence toward one business, but a whole host of people were affected by his actions. The same is true now. The ability to go to a fair or to a Walmart or to worship without looking behind our backs and keeping our ears pricked for tell-tale pops is shared by us all. We are all now in the business of thinking about, stressing about, and trying to prevent carnage, whether that was ever our plan or not.

So what should we plan to do next?

Eileen Gebbie is the senior minister at Ames United Church of Christ

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