“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” – Deuteronomy 31:6
Tuesday, January 5, 2016
A typical day in the life of St. Paul Lutheran School on Chicago’s South side. For those of you who have never been there, St. Paul is located on Dorchester Street in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood of Chicago. If you look closely, you might spot it next time you drive by on your way into town on the Chicago Skyway. Google Maps tells me it’s only 3 miles away from the Museum of Science and Industry, but life teaches us that an entirely new world can be found in a ten minute drive.
It was only the second day back in session after the long Christmas break, so as you might imagine, returning to the routines of school and homework were among the biggest challenges facing the teachers and students. Many parents and teachers will tell you that it is often that second day back that is the hardest in terms of readjusting to early bedtimes, earlier alarm clocks, and the resumption of homework back into our lives. So as the school day came to a close, there was undoubtedly a sense of joy knowing that everyone had made it through unscathed.
3:15 pm brought about the start of school dismissal. St. Paul isn’t a large school, so the dismissal process doesn’t really take too long, except for the fact that like many schools, St. Paul is a community of people who care and connect. So in the 15 minutes after school ended a few parents and teachers still lingered in the parking lot as others walked or drove away from the school.
Sound familiar? Remind you of the school you attended or where your kids go? Those similarities would come to a dramatic end when moments later the peace would be shattered. Three neighborhood teens were walking about half a block away from the school parking lot. Unnoticed by the group at the school, but unfortunately recognized by another group of teens in a nearby car. The car pulled up, shots rang out and in a moment three children lay wounded in the snow.
The families and teachers who lingered in the parking lot could hardly believe what they had witnessed. As the shooters sped off, one of the teachers sprinted to the wounded children. Prior to teaching, she had worked as a nurse so she instinctively began to help care for the victims. One child had been struck in the hand. The other two had wounds that were far more serious. Police were on the scene in moments to assist but the ambulance didn’t arrive for nearly twenty minutes, a span of time during which one of these children died in the arms of a teacher they had never met. All told, the day left two people dead, one wounded, and a community in shock.
The next day brought the school community of St. Paul back together again in a familiar Lutheran school location: Wednesday morning chapel. Led by Rev. Jeffrey Howell, the entire school community came together to talk and share their feelings with each other and with the Lord. Everyone recognized the tragic nature of the shootings which took the lives of children not much older than those sitting in the pews. They also understood the protection they were afforded by God for this not to have happened ten minutes earlier or 100 feet closer to the school. But more than anything else, they knew that God was there. He kept them safe, He knew their fears, He comforted their anxieties, and He would never leave them. Once again, God’s people entered into His presence and He provided them with exactly what they needed.
After the service a Kindergarten student asked if he could pray with Pastor Howell. Apparently, he was walking down the street with his family and had just turned the corner when the shooting took place. Pastor led the boy to the altar and listened as this young man thanked God for keeping him and his family safe. What an amazing testimony to the power of God working through the men and women of St. Paul to partner with this boy’s family to assure him that in the worst moments of life God is there, protecting us, delivering us, and sustaining us out of His great love for His most precious creation.
Since that day, God has continued to bring healing to the school community at St. Paul. The comfort dogs were brought in on Thursday to help lift the spirits of the students. The teacher who raced to the scene has had the chance to talk with an eighth grade student in the school who witnessed the shooting as he stopped to tie his shoe while walking home with his little brother. Their conversations have helped each other cope with what they saw and support one another through the healing process. Of course, the school has grown far more cautious in being aware of their surroundings, but emotionally they find themselves returning back to normal. As Pastor Howell puts it, “We’re wounded but healing, moving forward stronger as a staff and as a school.”
January 24 through January 30 will be celebrated by many LCMS schools as National Lutheran Schools Week. It’s a time when those of us within this great ministry give thanks for our schools and the work that they do. To many of our students – it is a week to wear silly clothes, to experience field trips and unique events, and to have a little more fun. Some welcome the celebration as fun, some may consider it a bit of a distraction for the students, and in true Lutheran fashion, some insist upon waiting until the first week of March to celebrate because up until a few years ago, that’s when it was and change is something we dislike. Whenever and however you celebrate, please never lose sight of the importance that Lutheran Schools have in the lives of the children they serve. I pray you never have to experience anything remotely similar to the events of January 5 at St. Paul. But know that some within our ministry will. Pray for one another, offering support at every opportunity. Recognize that many of the worst experiences you face would be gladly exchanged by another who faces far worse, but also know that no matter how difficult your situation may be, God is and always will be there.