A Few Remarks on Surviving A Violent Crime, May 3, 2012
Holocaust Survivor, Elie Wiesel, writes and speaks about the importance of telling our stories. This is mine. On Thursday, May 3, 2012, life as I knew it changed forever. While I was in an impromptu meeting at St. Timothy’s School for Girls a man with a gun entered St Peter’s Episcopal Church, Ellicott City, where I had been Rector since 1994, and shot and killed my two closest colleagues in ministry: Brenda Brewington our parish administrator, and The Reverend Mary Marguerite Kohn, priest and co-Rector for approximately ten years.
Any other Thursday I would have been back in the office by One or Two in the afternoon. As I left my meeting at St. Tim’s I received a phone call from 911 saying my presence was needed back at St Peter’s and that “there had been an event.” The operator could not tell me what had happened, and I assured her I was on my way.
What unfolded on my way there and when I arrived was devastating: I had received calls from others telling me about the shootings, and on the way I suspected I knew who was responsible; on arrival I found SWAT teams, dogs, the tank, a helicopter, police and detectives everywhere.
I was told one woman was lying in the office dead and the other was flown to Shock Trauma. No one knew for sure the identities of which was which. I was not allowed to assist in IDing the deceased in the church office. It would be some time later that we determined that Brenda Brewington was deceased and Mary Marguerite Kohn was on life-support at Shock Trauma.
From that point on I was fortunate in two regards not afforded to most victims of violent crime: 1) I was cared for and protected by a friend in the Sheriff’s Office, Sam Hammond, who kept me safe and away from the scene as it unfolded at St. Peter’s. Sam also got me past the press later that night when I had to go to the Police Station for questioning. And 2) One of the Wardens at St. Peter’s, Craig Stuart-Paul handled all parish communication with the press and the Diocese of Maryland. This means I was isolated from having to answer questions repeatedly for which there were no immediate answers. I never spoke on the record until today.
At first I had to suspend my own processing of events, feelings and fears while doing my best to lead the parish through the grief and healing process, plan, attend and participate in both funerals, and attend to the fact that I had already planned to leave St Peter’s by the end of May.
It was only after I left St. Peter’s that I began to reach out for support, therapy in the processing of my own feelings. The number one thing that helped me was to begin a daily journal. For me, it was in writing, reading (mostly poetry) and reflecting on events and my feelings that I began to realize the depth of damage that had been done; my therapist helped me to recognize that I was skating on the edges of, if not outright exhibiting, PTSD symptoms. It also helped to read my journal entries out loud in a safe place to one other person.
For me the journaling could have become an academic and intellectual exercise. In reading the entries out loud to at least one other person I found myself finally connecting to what was really happening inside of me – and it is those inner feelings, acknowledged or not, that direct our outward actions, much the way the rudder of a large ship way below the surface of the water controls the direction of the ship on the surface.
That is, until I would acknowledge what was happening to me internally, I would find myself doing and saying things for reasons I could not understand. I am sure many of you know what I am talking about: seemingly unprovoked panic attacks, crying at the oddest times, snapping at others, fear of things like darkness, constantly asking why, why, why, etc. Then there was the sense that when I felt I should have been the strongest for everyone else in our family and the parish that what I really needed was their support and help – and it was there in so many ways, for which I am eternally grateful.
That summer and fall and winter, a steady stream of events unfolded: the Aurora Colorado shootings, a random shooter in NYC, the shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and of course Newtown. How could they shoot at a school? In a church or temple? In a movie theater? I was asked these questions repeatedly by others nearly every day, or so it seemed.
On top of all of that was a deep sense of survivor’s guilt: I should have been in the office; perhaps I could have protected Brenda and Mary Marguerite. Followed, of course by the realization that but for a random, unscheduled meeting at school I may not even be here today. When colleagues and students at St. Tim’s would say, “We’re glad you’re still here,” I would respond, “I’m only here because I was here.”
Finally, poetry and music became my salvation. That and a piece of paper a student, Cori Spartana had given me. It was an origami prayer bubble: written inside of it were the words – The Lord loves those who put their trust in Him. It’s from the Quran. I kept it in my pocket wherever I went. It kept me safe. When I felt panicked I would hold it, look into it, recite the words and hold on. When I accidently lost it, I lost it. For a time I truly believed only it would keep me safe. I asked the student for another one, and she made one more for me. Playing music, reading and writing poetry helped me to keep moving forward. This poem, written a couple of years later, recalls how I used to sit next to Brenda Brewington’s desk (friends call her B Squared) each day when I came into the office to catch up on what had been happening in the parish:
was not there
sitting in the chair
why not? Wil never know wil never no wil never never ever ever know
‘twill always be a mystery
as I said to those
at St Tim’s
i am only here because I was here
wil never know wil never no will never ever ever know
and now they are gone
for ever ever yet never ever gone
for they will remain forever alive in the heart of the mystery itself
This is my story. Thank you for being here today. Keep telling your stories. It makes a difference – for you, for others, and for the greater community. Become a source of mercy and healing.