Hospital chaplain: I’ve seen the bodies of children killed by guns. Must you see them, too?
I could feel the anniversary creeping up, haunting me during school drop-offs and whenever I heard a loud sound. May 24 marks one year since 19 students and two teachers were slaughtered at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex. I remember learning that on the day of the shooting there had been an awards ceremony at the school. Busy parents had tried to take a few hours off work to come to their child’s school, watch them win an award or perhaps sing a song, kiss their heads and then go back to their day jobs. And then their child died.
Nothing has changed, has it? Next week, I will slip out of the hospital where I work to watch my son perform in “The Greatest Pet Shop Ever,” his first grade-school play. And then what? I am supposed to kiss him and drive back to work?
I often tell people that my favorite thing about being Christian is the incarnation. We believe that God became one of us: body odor, hairy legs, itchy eyes from allergies. Our God of love—the omnipresent, compassionate God of all things—became one of us. Our God could have been in that classroom, writing farewell notes in yearbooks and packing up his pencil box. She could have been cowering in fear under her desk, hiding her mosquito-bitten legs under a backpack, calling for her mother.
I need to believe in the loving presence of God in that room, easing fear, easing pain. It is the only thing that allows me to drop off my son each day, this belief that God is in him and with him.
Our God was there, I have to believe that. I need to believe in the loving presence of God in that room, easing fear, easing pain. It is the only thing that allows me to drop off my son each day, this belief that God is in him and with him.
It is terrible to imagine, isn’t it? What happens on those dark days? At work, where I serve as a hospital chaplain, what I actually see haunts me, too. Homicides, suicides, accidental deaths. I work at a children’s hospital. Why are there so many bullet wounds coming through our doors?
Recent data reveal that firearms are the leading cause of death in the United States for children and teens, surpassing motor vehicle-related deaths for the first time in 2020. I have heard people try to tease this fact out in various ways. “Suicide!” the internet commenters retort. “That shouldn’t count!” “Gang violence is the real problem,” another troll shouts. But at the end of the day, these are still dead children.
I have heard it said that if the public could see the physical images of violence after a shooting, perhaps we would all be more fervent in our demand for radical change. I have seen it. I have seen it again and again. Must I make you look, too?
I have heard it said that if the public could see the physical images of violence after a shooting, perhaps we would all be more fervent in our demand for radical change. I have seen it. Must I make you look, too?
Last year, I sat with a father as he wailed over the death of his son. His son was only 14 years old. He found a gun at a relative’s house, made an impulsive decision as 14-year-olds are prone to do and completed suicide. I sat with his father, lamented with his father, and prayed over his son’s body. Around two in the morning, I accompanied his body to the morgue as I promised his father I would do. When the sun came up in the morning, I went for a run. I wept through each mile.
Here is an image that I cannot shake: This child had dyed his hair black the day before he found the gun, perhaps another impulsive decision. So when his father left the room after his brain death exam, the hair sticking out of the bloodied bandages was black, not blond. This is the body he buried.
If we believe in the dignity of every human person, we cannot make up reasons to justify death by gun violence. Instead, we have to preserve dignity, preserve life, as our Catholic social teaching calls us to do. Don’t we all know by now that thoughts and prayers are not enough? They have never been enough.
On this horrifying anniversary, for me, honoring the dignity of every person looks like this: calling my representatives, donating to Moms Demand Action, asking the parents of my son’s friends about whether or not they have guns in their home before playdates, thanking my pastor for talking about gun violence at church. I invite you to discern what God is calling you to do, what God is calling all of us to do, in light of what our faith tells us to be true: Human life is sacred, and the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society.