As I bounced from meeting to meeting this morning I listened to discussion about the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. I had forgotten that April 4th was the day that he had been shot. For many in our country, if this date stands out at all, it's because of MLK - as it should be.
But not for me.
For me, April 4th marks the 27th anniversary of the trauma that has shaped so much of my life.
On April 4th, 1991, the plane carrying Senator John Heinz and a Bell Oil Helicopter collided over my elementary school while my first grade classmates and I were playing outside. I remember a ball of fire in the sky. Friends remember burning debris falling around us. We gathered on a parking lot that was absolutely off-limits under normal circumstances. We cried as two news helicopters circled and crossed paths. Sometime later we went back to our classrooms - and Rachel wasn't there. It's one of the few things my six-year-old brain thought to remember. Rachel wasn't there. She and Lauren, a first grader from the other class, had both been killed by the falling wreckage.
One of my friends and colleagues in the Presbytery - McKenna Lewellen - studied trauma as part of her seminary training. She once told me that trauma is pervasive, particular, and political. My particular experience of trauma lives in my body like arthritis - flaring up in debilitating ways at both random and completely predictable times. The predictable occurs around this week every year, no matter how many years go by - my mood tanks, my depression worsens, and I'm a cranky wreck to those with whom I'm closest. The random occurs with particular triggers - the smell of burning, the sound of helicopters, large crowds, fire. Sometimes these things float through my life, and I don't even notice them. Sometimes they trigger such anxiety that I am paralyzed by an all-out panic attack.
It's those panic attacks that interfere most with my life - and they inspire the most self-criticism. Because knowing that they are likely to occur in certain circumstances will occasionally change my plans. Two weeks ago I declined to join the March For Our Lives, though I deeply wanted to support the students who organized it and the cause itself, all because I knew that I wouldn't make it in the crowd with helicopters overhead without having a traumatic reaction. For days I beat myself up for not going, castigating myself allowing this thing that had happened when I was six determine what I do now.
As a pastor, I invite people to extend grace to themselves on a daily basis, yet I find it to be one of the most difficult practices when it comes to myself. But I think it's a skill that we all desperately need to cultivate in order for us to not just survive but thrive in this world. And so I've been trying to put all of this into a theological context in these past two weeks.
Though I was not at the march, three members of our congregation were able to be there. They represented our family of faith and brought their witness of the event back to us. For them, it was not an insurmountable challenge - it was empowering, and it didn't reduce them to a jiggling puddle of mush.
But there are other things that they can't do - or don't want to do - that I can. For various reasons, they couldn't be at an event where we listened to 8th graders about what they thought we should do when it came to the violence in Baltimore City, but for me that was the highlight of my week. There will be times in the future when they might be in a similar position as I was in - wanting to do something that they aren't able to - and I will be able to represent them and bear witness.
This doesn't seem like rocket science - because it's not. But it seems so hard to remember that this is what being the body of Christ is all about. Sometimes you will have the gifts and the mental and physical ability to do something, and I will not. Sometimes I will have the gifts and the mental and physical ability to do something, and you will not. As a community we stand in for one another, represent one another, and bear witness to one another. As a community we do the work of Christ, knowing that none of us could do it on our own. And as a community we hold onto one another and stand in for one another in those times when trauma or brokenness or illness or injury force us to slow down and step back.