That’s usually how I describe my hometown of Laguna Beach, Calif.
It’s a groovy artist’s colony and bonafide surfing town of about 22,000 souls where everybody seemingly knows everybody else and many of us don’t lock our front doors or cars. It’s a sun-drenched village on the Pacific coast, where the high school sports teams were known for years as “The Artists” (until changing it to the “Breakers,” as in a surf break, in recent years); where there is probably more macrame than there are guns per capita, and where the father of psychedelia, Timothy Leary, lived for a time before he got busted for pot possession the day after Christmas 1968 and split.
Laguna is a place where, generally speaking, it feels as if people don’t care how much money you have (although plenty of our neighbors have plenty of it), what you look like, or what you do, as long as you are kind and trying—in whatever way you can—to make the world a better place.
My husband, son, and I moved here from the suburbs of Chicago in the summer of 2009, drawn to this idyllic place—a progressive blue island in the sea of scarlet red Orange County — not just because of the weather and the vista (both beautiful), but because of the sense and kind of community it has been and is. That our son, who was in grammar school when we moved here, is a black child who was born and spent the first nine years of his life in Africa and would be among the 0.8 percent of the population in town who are black, gave us not a moment’s pause because of how we understood Laguna to be.
And when we arrived, sure enough our neighbors—the kind-hearted Hobbits of our Shire—greeted our little family with open arms.
My son wasn’t simply “tolerated” or even “accepted.” He was celebrated.
When our son left the house to ride his bike or go to the soccer pitch, or, as he got older, ventured down to the beach with his boogie or surf boards on his own, I didn’t worry. Or at least I didn’t worry in the way so many mothers of black children must worry every time they leave the house, and in some places, even when they’re still at home. I didn’t worry about my son’s physical safety, beyond a rogue wave or crossing Pacific Coast Highway barefoot to get to his favorite surf spot.
And when he became a teenager, we gave him more freedom and independence, and a few months ago when he earned his driver’s license and started driving the family car, my heart beat faster and I worried more than I had when he was little, but off he went without incident, insha’Allah, as our Muslim friends might say. We’ve taught him about keeping his hands on the wheel and in plain sight if ever he were stopped by police; how to ask permission to reach slowly for his wallet to fetch his license and registration. And when he’s not coming off the beach in town with his locks full of sand and salt water, we’ve asked him, please, not to wear his hoodie up.
It’s not fair. We know. And it shouldn’t matter. But it does. So please don’t wear it up. We’re just trying to keep you safe. It’s not you. It’s them. We don’t worry about you in Laguna because here everybody knows you. But out there …
And our son complies, without complaint. Because he is a good kid, respectful and kind, and he doesn’t want his mother to worry. Because as a tiny child, he lived alone on the streets of Blantyre, Malawi—one of the poorest cities in one of the poorest countries in the world—and he has a tremendous sense of self-preservation.
Because my son is wise beyond his years—beyond the years of most of us.
While he may be one of (statistically) perhaps nine African-American students in Laguna Beach High School’s 1,140 student body, much of the time he goes about life unmolested and unfettered, largely living the life of a typical American teenager.
And then something happens that reminds us, and not in the good way, that he is not typical. At least not here in Mayberry-by-the-Sea. At least not in the small minds of a few who have let stupidity, arrogance, entitlement, privilege, and hatred take root in their hearts.
On Dec. 27, 2016, shortly before 9 p.m., our family was just sitting down to eat dinner and watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with my brother, an Air Force pilot who had recently returned from a six-month deployment overseas fighting ISIS. This was the first chance he’d had to see his only nephew in more than a year. We watch the comedy classic together every year and laugh at all the same places. My brother wasn’t able to make it to us by Christmas, so we were a few days late and looking forward to tucking into our Thai food and watching Chevy Chase chew the scenery.
Then we heard something outside. Our front door was open, as it almost always is, and we heard shouting. It got louder and some of it sounded high-pitched. We thought perhaps someone was having a fight on the street. I worried it might have involved a woman. All of us adults began to move toward the front door. My husband got there first, just as we heard a thud, and screams that sounded like someone calling my son’s name, Vasco.
My husband, Maurice, turned in the threshold and came back into the house. “We just got punked,” he said, his face ashen. “Somebody just threw a watermelon at the house.”
“A WATERMELON?!” my brother and I said in concert. I immediately looked at my son, who sat silent in front of his Massaman curry. He wore an expression of pain and disbelief.
I called the police and took pictures of the melon shards that riddled our driveway, while my husband and brother talked to neighbors. Within 10 minutes, a police officer arrived at our home to take our statements. She was professional, apologetic, and thorough. When she left, my husband cleaned up the mess outside, while Vasco retreated to his room to write in his journal. He said he wanted to be left alone, which was unusual. He was angry in his quiet way, but he wasn’t scared. If that had been the perpetrators’ goal, they failed.
More than anything, right after the incident, my son’s heart was troubled.
“I don’t understand why anyone would hate me like that,” he said.
There were no words of explanation I could offer. I told him that I was sorry, that he was safe, and that I loved him. I wanted to scream and throw up, quaking with rage.
Not long after we put away the food—who could eat?—my husband mentioned that he thought he saw a sticker on a shard of melon. So I grabbed the fireplace tongs and dug around in the tall waste bin in the driveway until I found it. Maurice Googled the brand and discovered it was locally distributed. I phoned one of the supermarkets in town (we have three) and quickly learned that several boys from the high school (they were wearing various hoodies and other clothing bearing the Laguna Beach High School name and sports teams) had been there perhaps 15 minutes before 9 p.m. and bought a watermelon. A clerk at the store later recalled them discussing whether to buy one or two and when they settled on one, which one. They were blocking the aisle, she recalled—strapping athletes that they are—while they conferred and made their decision to go with just one melon, which one of them held aloft like a trophy.
All of this, we later discovered, was captured on store surveillance video, as was the boys getting into the pick-up truck outside the grocery store. A different security camera caught the truck pulling up outside our home not long after. It takes approximately seven minutes to drive from the store to our front door. They came straight here.
Police continued their investigation with vigor, led by a detective who is the first African-American police officer in the history of the Laguna Beach Police Department. They asked us to keep the incident quiet over the school break—it was the holidays, some folks were out of town, school wasn’t in session and school officials would need to be involved, too—until classes resumed. Then, the police could speak to all five of the boys identified via the video tapes at the same time. We told only a few close family members and friends who we trust to keep a secret, even a terrible one. And to his credit, so did our 17-year-old son, demonstrating the almost preternatural self-control, discipline, and character he has had from the moment we met him by the side of a dusty road in African nearly a decade ago.
On Jan. 9, police and school officials interviewed all five of the boys, some of whom we know, some not. And all five of the boys made statements implicating themselves, police and school officials told us. Through the boys’ statements, we learned more details of the racist incident.
Earlier on the night of Dec. 27, the five boys who are, just like our son, students and athletes at Laguna Beach High School, ate dinner together at a local restaurant and planned their evening. They drove to that grocery store where the video cameras captured them purchasing a watermelon and other items — including toilet paper, eggs, and an eggplant — to be used in their acts of vandalism and hate. They chanted our son’s name in unison as they drove up the hill and down the street to our house, where they stopped and called Vasco’s name in an apparent attempt to lure him outside. Then one of them hurled the watermelon across our driveway where it smashed into pieces and landed inches from our open front door.
You could see our Christmas tree clearly from the street where they stopped their car near the lip of our driveway long enough to hurl the heavy fruit and at least one expletive and racial epithet—“F— you, n—-er!”— before careening back up the hill back into the night like the cowards they are.
So much for Mayberry-by-the-Sea.
This is the part where I am supposed to say I was surprised by the attack on our home. But I can’t.
Shocked? Yes. Surprised? Sadly, no.
That’s not meant to be a commentary on the particular community where we live. Rather it reflects an awareness of both the current zeitgeist in our nation and its troubled and troubling history with race and racism.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time Vasco was targeted in a racist incident. It was the second. The first happened last spring in a classroom at the high school where three students made remarks to our son that were, he and we felt, racist. Words were exchanged. Video clips from Django Unchained and Captain Phillips were thrust in his face in a classroom where a substitute teacher had lost control. When that happened, we were outraged. The school handled it swiftly. Parents were notified and punishment was doled out internally.
We knew one of the boys—he and Vasco had been friends when they were in grade school but, as children do, had drifted apart when they hit adolescence. The other two were unfamiliar names and faces. We never heard from any of the parents offering apologies or anything else, which we thought was odd at the time. But life moved on quickly and so did we, figuring we had learned some hard lessons from the incident and so had the boys.
Sadly, we appear to have been wrong. Two of the boys from the incident last year also were involved in the incident on Dec. 27 at our home. And let me just call it what it was: A racist attack.
It also was an escalation from last year, when only words were exchanged. This time, the incident took place off campus. The boys planned, conspired, targeted, and came to our HOME. They lobbed a heavy object—with its obvious racial connotations—at the door, after unsuccessfully trying to lure our son outside. One of the boys involved in last year’s incident is the thug who yelled, “F — you, n —!” as they drove away like an elite suburban lynch mob.
History tells us that if left unchecked, this kind of behavior tends to continue to escalate. And while our son is physically unharmed, there are plenty of children in this country who look like him who are not — who have been harmed, who have been killed, who have been physically harassed, and beaten; who have been shot. And we want to do whatever we can to nip that kind of progression in the bud, name it for what it is, call it out, and try to stop it.
Some of the boys involved in carrying out those acts in December we know, and we know their parents. The parents we do know are not frothing-at-the-mouth bigots. We can’t imagine their sons learned racist ideas at home.
But they learned them somewhere.
Racists and bullies aren’t born. They are made.
I’m not going to lay the blame at the feet of any particular celebrity or public figure, candidate or politician, although the President-Elect’s public speech and actions are not doing a single thing to model the kind of behavior most of us would want our children to emulate. I agree wholeheartedly with Meryl Streep when she said in her Golden Globes speech the night before police interviewed the five boys in Laguna:
“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”
With our children in particular—even if you have people at home saying to them, “That is not how we behave; that’s wrong”—such blatant disrespect, incivility, and hatefulness permeates the air like sarin gas. We all breathe it.
We are blessed to live in a community where the prevailing culture says racist attitudes and behavior are neither acceptable nor tolerated. Despite what happened two days after Christmas, we still believe this to be true. The scores of neighbors who have reached out to us directly or indirectly and spoken out publicly to express support for our son and condemnation of the behavior of the five perpetrators are a testament to the prevalence of “higher angels” here.
But here’s the thing about racism that makes it so dangerous: It hides. It secretes itself behind wealth and privilege. Behind gates and reputations and influence. Behind bullies of all ages and threats spoken and unspoken.
The racism that lives here is the most pernicious kind.
I was born and reared in Connecticut, the granddaughter of immigrants from Ireland and Italy, the child of educators (my father spent nearly 50 years of his life teaching in one of the most prestigious public high schools in the nation.) Our family was solidly middle-class then as mine is today, but I always have been well acquainted with the rich and powerful. They were neighbors and friends. They still are.
The town where our family lived throughout my teen and college years, just a few miles away from Newtown, is fairly Norman Rockwellian in terms of New England ideals. And yet, when I was a junior in high school, just as my son is now, a neighbor in our quaint Connecticut town, became the “imperial wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan—the “top klansman” in the nation.
It was a fact so incongruous to the values and culture in which my brother and I grew up, that I thought it might be an apocryphal memory. It’s not. While his racist wizarding days have come and gone, contrary to my memory that he was “run out of town” when neighbors discovered his bigoted proclivities, the guy, now in his 80s, still lives in my childhood home town.
I guess that story telegraphs the most important point I’m trying to make in writing this: Racism is perhaps most dangerous, pernicious, and destructive where people assume it doesn’t abide.
I learned long ago that racism doesn’t stop on the southern side of the Mason-Dixon line. It doesn’t seem to care whether the company it keeps has a billion dollars or two cents, a PhD or a GED, a white collar, blue collar, or no collar at all. It’s alive and well on the East and West Coasts, just as it is in big cities and tiny villages all across these United States.
To think that it is not is to do a disservice to ourselves and, most importantly, to our children.
In the nearly three weeks since the racist incident at our home, a line from the little-seen Roland Joffé film There Be Dragons has run through my mind when I’ve considered the five boys and why they chose to do what they did:
“In a child’s heart many seeds are planted. You never know quite what will grow.”
All of us must be vigilant. When racism or any other kind of hatred rear their ugly heads, we must call them out, name them and shame them publicly. We must do our best to prevent their seeds from taking root and bearing ugly, horrifyingly strange fruit.
We have heard that a few of the boys involved in the watermelon incident are trying to parse their culpability. They were “just passengers.” They were “uncomfortable.” They “felt terrible” immediately afterward—and yet didn’t step up to admit what they’d done until confronted by very unhappy police detectives, school administrators, and coaches.
I have a lot of things I’d like to say to all the boys, but to those who believe they were somehow “less involved,” let me remind them of the words of British philosopher John Stuart Mill in his 1867 inaugural address at the University of St. Andrew’s:
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
“Don’t forget, Vash, you have to stand in your power and use your voice—only you can do that.”
That’s what the woman who takes great joy (as do we) in referring to herself as “Vasco’s Jewish grandmother” told him by phone from her home in Whitefish, Mont., last week.
A week or so before the watermelon landed on our doorstep, Ina Albert and Allen Secher (her husband, a rabbi, who is our son’s joy-filled “adopted Jewish grandfather”) became the targets of alt-right neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic hate groups who posted their names, likenesses, and contact information online. They were harassed, threatened, and called the most awful names.
Because they are Jewish.
Because they have spent a lifetime standing up for what is right, decent, and just. Because they insisted that in their very beautiful, very white, very privileged town in Montana love will always trump hate.
In 1962, as a young rabbi just out of seminary, Allen joined the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Freedom Rider in Georgia. He was arrested in Albany, Georgia. Two years later in 1964, Dr. King called on rabbis to join him for a march in St. Augustine, Fla. Allen and 16 other rabbis headed to Florida, where, the day before he arrived, a protestor had been shot and killed. Allen ended up leading the march, hand-in-hand with a young black woman singing freedom songs.
Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day…
I wish everyone I love could have listened in on that phone call between my son and his chosen grandparents, encouraging each other to be brave and courageous, to stand up for what’s right because it’s not just about them. It’s about all of us. And if we don’t, who will?
While we all are angered and disgusted by what happened, and by some of the excuses still being offered privately by some of the perpetrators, we are not interested in retribution. We don’t want revenge.We are Christians who try daily not to horrify Jesus while we fulfill our duty as the hands and feet and voices and faces of God’s love in the world.
We would like to see the boys who did this held accountable for their actions. Moreover, we’d like to see hearts changed and lives transformed by the miracle of truth-and-reconciliation that our vicar, the Rev. Lester MacKenzie of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach—who, when he was the same age as our son, lived as a black person under the apartheid system in South Africa—has taught us so much about. Father MacKenzie is walking closely with Vasco and reminds us that, no matter how quickly many of us would like to rush to kumbaya, we can’t get to real reconciliation until we first have truth.
This is a teachable moment and we don’t want it to be squandered. So we are working closely with school and community leaders to make sure what happened isn’t swept under the rug. Again. We have heard from dozens of neighbors, parents, and students that this kind of thing happens here in Mayberry-by-the-Sea a lot more often than any of us would like to imagine or believe.
You probably would like to know, as so many people of good will and faith have asked in recent days, how Vasco has handled all of this?
Remarkably well. In fact, I’d like to be more like my son when I grow up.
Vasco has deep reserves of peace and calmness that are rare in any human, no matter age or life experience. He’s not perfect. He’s a kid. But he has navigated these fraught waters with characteristic grace and thoughtfulness.
He would like to have the chance to sit down with the five boys and ask them about the choices they made. “I want to know why they decided to do what they did, and why to me,” Vasco’s told us. “I want to understand what they were thinking.”
I don’t believe Vasco or any of us ever truly will “understand” the thought or lack thereof that fuels such horrendous behavior. While he may not get the answers to his questions now or ever, our son is fine. He is brave and mighty, as our prayer and blessing for him has been each day that he’s been our son and long before that.
I am so very proud of and grateful for Vasco’s heart. Being his mother is the greatest honor and privilege of my life.
Every day, though even more acutely on the day we celebrate the life of a man who gave his life so that—generations later—my son could enjoy freedoms he never got to see his own four children experience, Vasco gives me hope for our collective future.
And a child shall lead them…
Our buddy Father Jim Martin has an excellent piece on gun control as a moral, nay “pro-life”, issue in America Magazine today.
Jim says in part:
Gun control is about the defense of life. Those who consider themselves religious or pro-life must be invited to see that the desire to prevent gun-related deaths is part of the religious defense of the dignity of all life. To put the matter bluntly, if one is in favor of protecting the unborn–and will advocate for them, protest in marches on their behalf, donate money to pro-life groups and encourage voting for legislators who protect the unborn—one should be equally in favor of protecting those lives six and seven years out of the womb, the ages of several of the children murdered last week in Connecticut.
I am not a political person. I do not follow political campaigns or the ins and outs of various pieces of legislation as closely as some of my friends do. And I don’t know which politicians have supported and opposed stricter gun control laws. But I am a religious person. Many of my political opinions, then, are formed by my religious ideals: for example, a commitment to help the poor and marginalized, a desire for a peaceful world, and a respect for the sanctity of life from natural conception to natural death.
That is why I believe that gun control is a religious issue. It is just as much of what many religious people call a “life issue” or a “pro-life issue,” as is abortion, euthanasia or the death penalty (all of which I oppose), and programs that provide the poor with the same access to basic human needs as the wealthy (which I am for). There is a “consistent ethic of life” that views all these issues as linked, because they are.
Read Jim’s post in its entirety HERE.
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release December 16, 2012
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
AT SANDY HOOK INTERFAITH PRAYER VIGIL
Newtown High School, Newtown, Connecticut
8:37 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you, Governor. To all the families, first responders, to the community of Newtown, clergy, guests — Scripture tells us: “…do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away…inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”
We gather here in memory of twenty beautiful children and six remarkable adults. They lost their lives in a school that could have been any school; in a quiet town full of good and decent people that could be any town in America.
Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief; that our world too has been torn apart; that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you, we’ve pulled our children tight. And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide; whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it. Newtown — you are not alone.
As these difficult days have unfolded, you’ve also inspired us with stories of strength and resolve and sacrifice. We know that when danger arrived in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school’s staff did not flinch, they did not hesitate. Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel Davino and Anne Marie Murphy — they responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances — with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care.
We know that there were other teachers who barricaded themselves inside classrooms, and kept steady through it all, and reassured their students by saying “wait for the good guys, they’re coming”; “show me your smile.”
And we know that good guys came. The first responders who raced to the scene, helping to guide those in harm’s way to safety, and comfort those in need, holding at bay their own shock and trauma because they had a job to do, and others needed them more.
And then there were the scenes of the schoolchildren, helping one another, holding each other, dutifully following instructions in the way that young children sometimes do; one child even trying to encourage a grown-up by saying, “I know karate. So it’s okay. I’ll lead the way out.” (Laughter.)
As a community, you’ve inspired us, Newtown. In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you’ve looked out for each other, and you’ve cared for one another, and you’ve loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered. And with time, and God’s grace, that love will see you through.
But we, as a nation, we are left with some hard questions. Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around. With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves — our child — is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice. And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet, we also know that with that child’s very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us; that we won’t — that we can’t always be there for them. They’ll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments. And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.
And we know we can’t do this by ourselves. It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize, no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself. That this job of keeping our children safe, and teaching them well, is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community, and the help of a nation. And in that way, we come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we’re all parents; that they’re all our children.
This is our first task — caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.
And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?
I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.
Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we’ve hugged survivors. The fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America — victims whose — much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.
But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.
In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?
All the world’s religions — so many of them represented here today — start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose? We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain; that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame, or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that no matter how good our intentions, we will all stumble sometimes, in some way. We will make mistakes, we will experience hardships. And even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.
There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have — for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace — that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger — we know that’s what matters. We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.
That’s what we can be sure of. And that’s what you, the people of Newtown, have reminded us. That’s how you’ve inspired us. You remind us what matters. And that’s what should drive us forward in everything we do, for as long as God sees fit to keep us on this Earth.
“Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them — for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Allison.
God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory.
May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in His heavenly place. May He grace those we still have with His holy comfort. And may He bless and watch over this community, and the United States of America. (Applause.)
END 8:55 P.M. EST
~ Isaiah 9:6
On the flight home from Connecticut, where we’d buried my beloved father a few days before Thanksgiving, I watched the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and dissolved into a wailing heap of tears and snot.
The premise of the uneven dramedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley is this: An massive asteroid named Matlilda is on a collision course with planet Earth and in three weeks’ time, the world will come to an end. The main characters and others decide how – and with whom – they want to spend the last days of their lives.
Given recent events, this led to some soul searching on my part. If I had three weeks to live, what would I do? Where would I go? Who would I want to make sure I saw? With whom would I want to share my last breaths?
For most of my life the answer has been the same: I’d want to be with my family and, in particular, with my father.
Which is why I ended up bawling my eyes out for the last 90 minutes of the flight home to Los Angeles, much to the dismay of the fellow in the middle seat next to me.
If I had three weeks to live today, I wouldn’t be able to spend any of those moments with Daddy.
He’s in the More, now. On the other side of the veil. In Heaven. Resting in peace. With Jesus.
And I will have to wait until my earthly life ends to see him again face-to-face.
It’s a terribly disquieting thought, one that had filled me with sheer dread since the father of a classmate died suddenly when we were in junior high. Stefanie’s dad was probably in his late 30s. At the time, my dad was in his 50s. And I was terrified that something awful would happen and he’d be gone.
The idea of losing my father terrified me and made me panicky. I wouldn’t let Daddy leave the house without telling him to be careful and that I loved him, whether his destination was a transcontinental flight or a trip to the Stop & Shop down the street.
If he died, I wouldn’t be able to function. It would be chaos. The planet would spin off its axis. The sky would fall. I’d be utterly lost.
It would be the end of the world as I knew it.
So 30 years later, when Daddy did go home to Jesus – peacefully, in his sleep – I was shocked to find the panic and terror I had anticipated for so long replaced by a palpable, otherworldly sense of peace.
I was in Washington, D.C., when I got the call from my mother in the wee hours of a Wednesday telling me that Daddy had passed. Well, at least I was on the right coast. I could drive north on I-95 to Connecticut in a few hours rather than trying to find a flight from the West Coast.
Instead of hopping in the car right away, I took my time getting ready for the drive home. I sent emails and made phone calls to family and friends, letting them know that my father had passed away. One of the first friends I told was a fellow who was in from out of town to do some lobbying on Capitol Hill. I was supposed to see him at lunchtime, and sent a quick note to say Daddy had died and I wouldn’t be able to make it.
A few hours later, just as I was heading out of the district toward Baltimore, my friend emailed me back saying that he had sought out a quiet corner in the U.S. Capital to pray for my family and me – for God to give us “the peace that passes all understanding.”
Such an articulation of peace comes from the epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians, where, in the third chapter, the apostle writes:
Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication make your requests known to God. And the peace that passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:6-7)
In other words, God says, “I got this,” and hands us peace.
But what is this peace of which the Bible speaks? In the Hebrew scripture the word used most often for “peace” is shalom. It means more than just a lack of conflict or absence of war. Shalom comes from the Hebrew verb shalam, which means to “make amends.” Shalom describes a completeness or a soundness; a healing or making whole again.
In the New Testament, the Greek word for peace used most often (including in the passage from Philippians 3) is eirene. It describes a state of tranquility and rest, but also a “joining together,” God’s gift of wholeness when all the disparate parts will be joined together.
Eugene Peterson says that “Jesus is the dictionary in which we look up the meaning of words.” Therefore, Jesus himself is both the definition and incarnation of God’s peace – the Prince of Shalom described by Isaiah.
True peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat from the battle, but only in the thick of the battle. Picture Jesus at the Last Supper: He had every reason to believe that the end was upon him, and we see im looking around at his friends who will all betray him and saying, ‘Peace I leave with you,’ he says, when you would have thought he had no peace at all anywhere. ‘My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’ John 14:27)
Christ never promises peace in the sense of no more struggle and suffering. Instead, he helps us to struggle and suffer as he did, in love, for one another….Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought. Go where your best prayers take you. Unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy. Breathe deep…you cannot go it alone. You need help. You need them. You need whatever name you choose to give the One whom Lewis named Aslan.
That kind of peace is what descended on my heart and mind in the wake of my father’s death. I didn’t do anything to get it to arrive. I didn’t pray the right prayer or read the right thing. It just … arrived. Like a gift.
It feels like a pair of strong arms I can wrap myself in and sink into like a cosmic bear hug. It makes no sense to have this kind of peace when the world as I knew it had come to an end and my greatest fear had come to pass.
Perhaps even in the darkest of times personally or collectively – even when the most horrific evil we could imagine wrecks havoc and terror in the halls of a Connecticut elementary school, violently ending the lives of 26 innocents – there is a peace that can cut through it all.
Even on the day when the Mayan calendar stops, when some say the world will end and the Apocalypse will begin. Even on the shortest day of the year that I will always think of as annus horribilus. Even when all hope is lost and darkness threatens to swallow the last flicker of light.
May you know the peace that passes all understanding in these last days of Advent — as we look with hope to the Incarnation of the Prince of Peace — at Christmas, in the new year, and in all the days to come.
Cathleen Falsani is a Featured Writer for Sojo.net. A veteran religion journalist who specializes in the intersection of faith and culture, Cathleen is the author of four books, including The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, the memior Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, and The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. Follow Cathleen on Facebook and Twitter @GodGrrl.
Photo credit: Mayan glyphs by zimmytws/Shutterstock. Photo (bottom): Cathleen Falsani and her father, Mario “Muzzy” Falsani, at Christmastime 1972. Photo courtesy of the author.