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A sad recollection … and the message to a confused world

Sorrow engulfs much of the news in the media these days. Human suffering is magnified. No heart can stay callous to the pain of tragedy and loss. Lately, we often are reminded by the mounting numbers of people divested by calamities as hurricanes, terrorist and criminal acts, and the ravages of war.

Reading or listening to the news can be a painful experience. Stark photos tell the stories. In recent weeks, hurricanes in Houston, south Florida, the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, then, earthquake in Mexico City, and lately, massacre in Las Vegas, not to mention isolated stabbings and shootings in other cities in the US and abroad – all these run a cord through humanity, and humanity trembles. Devastation, loss, grief and uncertainty induce fear that castrates hope. Yet, in the midst of profound suffering emerges the triumph of the human spirit: resilience, courage, determination, patience, re-birth of hope, the strength of faith. The selfless service of responders and volunteers, the outpouring of help, sympathy and prayers all manifest that in this world, love is not lost, human hearts care.

The tragic event in Las Vegas brought to my recollection one dark episode that I witnessed when I was an American Field Service (AFS) exchange student (from the Philippines) in Greensberg, Pennsylvania. In all my one year stint, while people were immensely nice, gracious and hospitable, I felt a foreigner in a country where most things were new and different and quite challenging to my closely held traditions. Except that week of President Kennedy’s assassination – I didn’t feel a foreigner at all. I cried with my American classmates, friends and family. I sat glued to the black and white TV for days, watching the proceedings of the wake and funeral. And just like the Americans, I felt the social despair of a country stunned by the cowardly and abominable act of violence.

I remember so vividly that day in my high school English literature class. Our teacher was suddenly interrupted by crackling noises on the intercom followed by a quivering voice announcing that President John F. Kennedy was shot. A brief description of the circumstance mentioned a motorcade in Dallas, but it was hard to catch details in the midst of loud gasps, interjections and a babble of reactions. Utter disbelief subsequently ushered in a deafening silence. No one dared stir the ponderous hush. And no one dared move, until the teacher got up and slowly walked out of the room. The students followed suit, quietly picked up their stuff and piled out very orderly as though in a processional. Other students were also ambling out of their classrooms in the same somber fashion. The hallways that usually echoed heavy thuds of rushing feet and sparkly chats were deathly quiet, as though the hard cement floor suddenly turned to thick carpet that muffled sounds of solemn footsteps. Some held hands to comfort. Others offered warm hugs. Some others whipped out their handkerchief to wipe a friend’s tears. And some, hunched, stared at their toes as they trooped out to the bus stop. Everyone took the news very personally.

We all proceeded to the buses stationed outside, not surprised at all that the drivers were already waiting at their station. Only a small number of students drove their cars, so there were some 20 of the big yellow buses slowly creeping over the hill like they, too, were in a funeral procession. There was absolutely no pep talk, bickering, laughing or arguing in the bus that day. Our school, like other schools in the communities, were closed the remainder of that week.

That day, I felt like an adult. I looked about and saw that the students all seemed older. We were all teens, but the seriousness of the tragedy seemed to bear down on our faces, and we quickly got older that day. We all were of kindred spirit, youths trying to understand how the world could turn suddenly upside down with one evil and senseless act. I don’t think we were trying to grasp the intricacies of politics and government, nor dive into conjectures about secret pathways into caverns of muddled plots. No, we were just floating on a mammoth current of sadness that deluged the whole country.

My American host family’s home reflected the same somber mood felt in the school. Each day was consumed by watching televised events leading up to President Kennedy’s funeral procession and burial. I remember spending the days slumped on the couch with my host sister, mindlessly eating large pots of popcorn generously greased in rich butter. When the pot was empty, which it did thrice a day, she quietly trekked to the kitchen, made another pot, shook the container for the melted butter to reach bottom. The popcorn was always quickly devoured by mourners in the house that included my host parents and their two other children younger than my sister-buddy. My American home reeked of buttered popcorn that whole week. Strange and silly that to this day, I associate that dark epoch in American history with richly buttered, greasy popcorn eaten every day of that mourning week. I particularly recall that moment — little John Jr. executing a solemn salute when the casket bearing his father stood before the family — our uncontrolled tears rolled down our popcorn, and salted the overly buttered popcorn even more.

And now, this horrific, senseless massacre in Las Vegas. In moments like this, there is no class, color or age distinction; there is just us. While mired in deep thought about the horrific happenings in the world, I saw an email from my son. He shared a video of his directing for the first time the children’s choir during the Sunday service in the Cal Berkeley church. My grandson was one of the third and fourth graders in the group. I watched the video five times, fascinated each time by my son’s conducting and my grandson’s formal stance as he seriously sang, and especially gripped by the music and its lyrics. What truly resonated was the message of the song. It goes, “Be still and know that I am God … I will be exalted … I will be exalted in the earth. I am always with you … I will be your strength. Be still and know that I am God.”

A tremendously powerful reminder of a sovereign God who loves all His children, and speaks with comfort and assurance, in the voices of children.

“Be still … be still.” Despite and through all the conundrum of a very confused world … He is speaking to us, of any orientation, origin or leaning. Listen … it is us that He loves. Be still, and know that He is God.

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