—by Kay Collier McLaughlin
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Joy. Sorrow. Beginnings. Endings.
Whatever it is life brings our way, Episcopalians mark and inwardly digest it best as we gather for worship — and so it was the appropriate ending for a conference and beginning of serious efforts to Reclaim the Gospel of Peace in a violent world. Following two days of serious conversations about practical steps that are being taken and can be taken across the theological and geographical spectrum of the Episcopal Church, modeling conversation in a “condemnation-free zone that our society has not been able to have — voices too shrill drowning out voices of peace and non-violence” (Bishop Eugene Sutton, Diocese of Maryland in closing remarks), the 220 participants (34 bishops, clergy and lay leaders from California, RioGrande, Texas and Nevada to New York Connecticut Massachusetts and all the spaces in between) traveled to the National Memorial of the Oklahoma City bombing.
For those who have never been to the Memorial, the sense of sacred space is underscored by the reverent quietness in the midst of a busy city, and by the deep commitment of the red-shirted staff, volunteers and park rangers who daily tell the story — not just of the tragedy, but of Oklahoma City’s ongoing commitment to non-violent response in the face of terrorism and violence.
The museum is an experience of immersion in the shock and horror of the day, from the timeline emphasizing the ordinariness of that April morning to the moment when, standing in a replica of a federal building meeting room hearing, the actual recording of the bomb exploding is a visceral reminder of the act that forever changed this city.
The final stop on the museum tour is a meeting with one of the survivors who is part of a regular rotation of individuals who share their stories with visitors — not simply to emphasize the impact of the event, but to continue their own long journey of healing and tell of lessons learned. Melissa Houston, an attorney with the Attorney General’s office, was a newly minted attorney on her first job after law school 19 years ago. She riveted the room as she told her story and answered questions. She, the rangers, and the supervisor of park services all named their departure from separation of church and state as they spoke to the group, freely speaking of the role of faith in their own lives and in response to this event. Asked why she felt Oklahomans had been able to respond with attitudes of non-violence and helpfulness from the earliest moments after the bombing through today’s assistance in Boston and other places around the nation and the globe, Houston responded that Oklahoma is a place of deep faith, where people are not afraid to speak of their religion and its role in their lives.
With this personal story in hearts and minds, the group moved onto the site itself, as rangers gave specifics of the site before the bombing and explained the symbolism of the painfully beautiful memorial with its 168 empty chairs carefully placed amid the evergreen native pine trees, the “wall of survivors” in the background. Wandering among the chairs, images from the museum gallery are fresh — ever the ages of 19 years ago, angels, teddy bears, and baseball caps lovingly preserved with each photo.
Some sat quietly beside the reflecting pool, lost in their own thoughts of this reminder that reclaiming the Gospel of peace is not an option, but a mandate. Others touched the survivors’ tree, or looked out over the grounds from the curved wall of the pavilion where the words “Faith sustains us” are carved, before walking slowly toward the welcoming red doors of St Paul’s Cathedral two blocks away, where 19 years ago the blast lifted a roof and bowed the walls.
And there we did what Episcopalians do to live and mark their lives. We filled the Cathedral, and we sang and spoke our truths. “Strangers now are friends.” A litany for peace. Words of the Presiding Bishop. At the offertory, filled sticky notes from the service booklet with reflections on next steps God might be calling each to take. Moving toward the altar to receive the Eucharist, placing the notes on a wooden cross at the chancel steps. The pink, green, orange and blue papers fluttered gently as the service concluded — “Together met, together bound, we’ll go our different ways; and as Gods people in the world we’ll live and speak His praise.”
In a city which lives transformation and reconciliation, we turned to a person seated near us and shared the calls we were hearing. Exchanged emails and a covenant of support and accountability. We must carry the new fire for the Gospel of Peace with us and extend the work.