On February 7, 2008, having just come home from a family dinner out, my son received a call on his cellphone. “Turn on the news,” was all he said. I turned on the television and saw a picture of City Hall surrounded by police cars with flashing lights and cops walking around with big guns. The ticker on the bottom of the screen said, “Shooting, Kirkwood City Hall,...” My immediate thought was: I need to get to church.
On my way to the church, which stands directly across the street from City Hall, the music director called, “Where are you?”
“I'm on my way. I'll be there in three minutes.”
“I have the choir locked in, there may be a gunman on the loose.”
“Meet me at the front door in three minutes and let me in.”
When I arrived at church, there was an odd number of staff present (all but one) for a Thursday night. In our large urban campus, they were all gathered near the front entry. Walking toward the Welcome Center, I asked if anyone had heard from Cathy, whose husband Ken was the Director of Public Works, always at City Coucil meetings, and the target of one citizen's wrath for a number of years. I had my assistant Jane start calling all the hospitals trying to determine where wounded people were being taken. I called Cathy's cellphone repeatedly. I finally reached her and she said all the survivors were being taken to St. John's Hospital and she was on her way. I told her I'd meet her there. On the way to the hospital, I talked with Karen, the Associate Pastor, and told her about St. John's. She said she would meet me there, too.
When I got to the hospital, I met a nurse at the entrance who said, “You can't come in. We are on lockdown due to a mass-shooting.” I identified myself as a local pastor and the reason I was there; she personally escorted me to the Emergency Room waiting area where I met up with Cathy. Karen arrived shortly thereafter, and having learned the mayor of our community, a member of our church, was in emergency surgery because of the shooting, she went to be with his family. I decided to stay with Cathy. There were also members of a councilman's family milling about the ER waiting room. I noticed all the people sitting, waiting to be seen in the ER, just watching Cathy and the councilman’s family. I went to the desk and asked if there was a room we could all wait in in private. There was.
It seems like we sat in that small room for an eternity. Finally, I decided to go see if I could find out where Ken was or when they expected him to finally show up. I walked out of the room, turned toward the desk, took about three steps and then stopped. It was eerily still. And in that instant I knew: they weren't expecting any more survivors to show up in the ER. I went to the man with the clipboard and said, “You aren't expecting anyone else from the shooting to arrive are you?” He simply said, “No sir.” I felt the color drain out of me. I asked, “Whose going to tell the people waiting in the room?” “The police chaplain is on his way.” I returned to the room just as the other family received a phone call from home stating a police officer had stopped by to give them the gruesome news: their husband, father, friend was dead. Cathy turned to me and said: “Ken is dead. Isn't he?” At that moment, the door opened, the chaplain walked in, and Cathy and I fell apart.
Seven years ago and it still feels like last night.
I realize I did not have a loved one killed that night. I was not in the council chamber while the shooting took place. Yet, as with many bystanders and witnesses that night, I too was traumatized. What I understood my sense of call and purpose to be in the morning of February 7, 2008, radically changed that night as I learned personally and professionally how to pastor a grieving congregation and community, even as I was grieving. I learned that a new and wiser vocational call and purpose can emerge in the aftermath of trauma, and I will share about my discoveries in the following six-post series.