Walking with Highland Park

Walking with Highland Park

Unlike the day of 9/11, when terrorists struck in New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania, I don’t recall where I was when I heard the news. Another public shooting. This time, it was in Highland Park, Illinois and at a 4th of July parade. Admittedly, my first reaction was not noble. It was “Crap. Another jerk is making the legal use of firearms an issue again.” This is not the forum to discuss my view of gun laws other than to note the politicized nature of these events in our society right now.

The news went “national” immediately. Many of us were inundated with “reporting” which had few facts. Those would come; but, it was still early in the process. We knew for sure there was a shooting, several people were hit and that there were causalities. Whoever did this was still out at large.

I was born in Highland Park, but have little recollection of the town since my family moved away for the area when I was 2 years old. Although I returned to the area with my family and have been living in the same county as Highland Park for the past 15 years. The location was hardly of note: “Hometown, USA” was celebrating July 4th and a wonderful family day was needlessly terrorized. Innocent lives were destroyed. Names, faces and stories were center to what we would hear on the news as the days progressed.

Remarkedly, the “unknown” shooter was captured later in the day.  

One of the stories that surfaced was that the local Catholic Church had a float in the parade. When the shooting started and people scrambled, many sought shelter at nearby Immaculate Conception parish. Cardinal Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, would join the people of the community in a Mass of Healing the next evening at this very same church.  

As with most national news sensations, the stories continued to headline the news for a week or so and then the sensation died down. Highland Park news was no longer on the front page of the morning paper. Still, in returning to work after the holiday, I learned on the company intranet that one of the slain was a fellow employee. She and her husband had been killed, reportedly with the father covering their surviving 2 year old child as a shield. Reflecting on the loss of this child’s parents, the news of Highland Park finally arrived at my heart. A “Go Fund Me” site and my company’s donations assured the child’s financial security. It was not being able to call for his mother or father anymore that caused a mist to come over my eyes.  

Life is sacred. Our culture of death has hardened my heart to this.

First e-mail

A few weeks after the shooting, our vicariate sent an email inviting priests and deacons to pray with individuals affected by the tragedy at the Highland Park Independence Day parade.  The pastor was planning an “Evening of Listening and Prayer” at the very church people had sought shelter at during that tragic day weeks before. Like many, I typically scan these types of emails for things to jump out to me before I delete them. I noticed this event but, really didn’t pay much attention to it. My schedule is quite full this summer. Even with a mental noting of the Highland Park prayer service, I deleted the email and moved on to address the items needing attention in my secular world.

Second e-mail

A week or so later, I noted a “reminder” email arrived. This time I noted that there was a comment that a couple more clergy were “welcome to minister at this prayer and listening session.” In my mind, I was deciphering the code – people were needed to pitch in.

The email reminded us that:

“Individuals and families will be invited to come share their grief and concerns and to pray with a spiritual companion who is a priest or permanent deacon. The purpose is to not to provide counseling but to offer the hurting the graces of specific prayer and blessing. The evening will open with a brief prayer service. Following prayer as a community, ushers will direct individuals or families to meet a deacon or priest who will be stationed around the church.”

The comment “share their grief and concerns” resonated with me as a call for people trained in spiritual direction. The second request made me realize that being a deacon with a spiritual direction certificate, I should probably try and attend. My original disinterest was changing to excitement. I had been training for this ministry for years. How could I could not pass the opportunity up now?

Yet, this was not a typical “sit down in a safe environment” spiritual direction event. As my wife noted in regards to the situation in Highland Park, “that is some heavy stuff.” She was right. However, that is what we sign up for in ministry. While Pope Francis calls for us to “smell like the sheep,” this was getting some “blood on my stole.” However, my enthusiasm was soon waning to nervousness. I felt this event was “the major leagues” compared to what spiritual directors often deal with! 

Reaction

After sending an email confirming my attendance, the event coordinator enthusiastically welcomed my participation. She reminded me to come early to meet with the pastor and review his plan for the evening. I reached out to a friend of mine who is also a spiritual director. I expressed my initial concerns to her regarding the magnitude of the event. My friend was very supportive of my participation and reminded me that not only was this what we are called to do through our spiritual direction ministry but how sacred the moment would be. I was reminded of my potential worry.  

My friend mentioned that I might need to see my own spiritual director “after something this heavy.” To the contrary, I was wondering if I needed to talk with my spiritual director before going to this event. I had noticed the emotions beginning to well up in me. My thoughts switched from a potential need to see a spiritual director to a need to talk with a spiritual supervisor. I was not dealing with an issue, per se, but my reactions to it. Thus, a classic definition of “spiritual supervision,” I thought. I decided to take this to prayer. Was I being “emotional” or simply dealing with nervousness?

I decided in my own mind that there would be nothing wrong with talking to my spiritual supervisor beforehand, but in prayer, I recognized my disconnects and felt that I was in a good place to proceed on my own. My job as a Christian spiritual director was to be the third person in the room, leaving the second chair for the Holy Spirt. With this realization, my nervousness subsided. That “prayer stuff” works. I should do it more!

Immaculate Conception Church

The evening of the prayer event found me driving to the church feeling like a novice spiritual director again. What would I say to someone who just a few weekends ago may have saw death and certainly saw “panic in the streets?” I laughed at myself recalling how the more rehearsed I was before a spiritual direction session the worse I was at it. I even have a sign on my computer which reads “prepare for spontaneity” as a note to myself to “go with the flow.” Yet, the desire is not to be prepared as much as to be effective for someone else. The “nerves” were kicking in again.

Arriving at the parish I was thrilled to meet the pastor. In reading the stories of how he went from being on the parish float during the shooting to shepherding the flock of Highland Park to his parish for safety, I found his actions to be inspiring. In meeting this priest, I found him to be very welcoming. Another deacon and I asked him about the events of the shooting as he saw them. Fr. described hurriedly walking with people to reach the parish, which was a few streets away from the shooting. He reminded us no one knew anything about the identity of the shooter(s) during this time. Fr. described people hiding in the trees and shrubbery around the parish grounds. At his invitation, some came inside the church. Others would not go inside, preferring to stay where they had found “refuge.” In his story, the emotions of the day became quite apparent.

Fr. reminded us to just let people come and share a moment with us. “Let them talk, and pray with them,” he said. “Pray over them if that is what they request. However, try and keep each meeting to no longer than five minutes.” With that, we were each shown our “station” where each of the clergy were assigned to sit and meet with anyone wanting to come talk. 

Quiet Time in the Pew

We learn in Christian spiritual direction that before any meeting with another, we should spend some time in private prayer and centering. After meeting with the pastor, I decided to sit in a pew before the program was scheduled to start. In the Catholic tradition, sitting before the large crucifix above the altar allowed me to quietly reflect in silence on the story the pastor just told me. Staring at the crucifix, I began to cry. I welcomed this feeling with joy and prayed to Jesus that He would “melt my heart to a puddle of love.” I loved the sensation as the crust of the earthen layers each of us builds up as we go through life these days in a world gone crazy melted away. In the moment, I stopped asking God for “what to say” as I had done on my drive to the church. My prayer turned to “Lord, let me be present in the moment. Help me to walk with those hurting in Highland Park.” I took comfort knowing my job that evening was not to “say” anything. My job was to be present and listen. I longed for some “blood on my stole.”

Holy Listening

Arriving at my station just before the prayer service began, I chose a chair that didn’t have a view of the congregation. At this point in my journey, it didn’t matter to me how many people were going to show. In fact, it didn’t matter to me if no one stopped by at all. I was here to listen if I was needed. I decided that my focus was to be solely on the person in from of me. If I wasn’t needed, I would rejoice at the healing in Highland Park

However, I did get the blessing of listening to and praying with Highland Park.

I would hear stories of people being reminded of other tragedies in their lives. I learned the shooter’s family lived only two blocks from the Church. Because the shooter was known to have left the parade sight and return to his parents’ house to get a car and other weapons, people were reminded that as they made their way to the church that day, some were walking with the disguised shooter. I was reminded that the shooter had a sister who was scheduled to return to the local high school in a few weeks and what life will be like for her. Some scorned the shooter’s parents, others worried for them. I prayed. We prayed for all involved.

Siting under the crucifix of Jesus, I was reminded that in Christianity, we have a God who knows suffering.

Ignatian Relaxation

In my time between visits, I discerned the events of July 4th in this community. I simply embraced the crucified Jesus in my midst. Using Ignatian spirituality, I placed myself in Highland Park that tragic day. In my contemplation, I walked a few steps behind the shooter as I made my way to Immaculate Conception. I heard the fear and felt the panic. I felt my blood pressure rise and my heart began to beat faster. Unlike the weeks earlier, I felt in my heart the events of July 4th in Highland Park. What a blessing to be at Immaculate Conception that evening! I healed a heart that wasn’t broken. No, I healed a heart I didn’t realize had hardened.

Prayer

Before the prayer session, I prayed for the little boy who had lost his mom and dad. That was “duty.” It was good for him and probably more harmful than good for me. I was praying from my intellect and not from compassion. In listening to Highland Park with a discerning and open heart, I prayed with those who were hurting. Staring at the crucifix I was reminded of a God who knows not only suffering, but unjust suffering. I reminded those I walked with that in Jesus we have a God who understands.

In Highland Park that night I learned to pray for the person I journeyed with. I asked permission to hold their hand in prayer. We prayed for the victims, those still living the events of July 4th. The experience reminded me to pray for the parents of the shooter. I was reminded at how little control we have of our adult children and yet still accept a level of responsibility for their actions. Neighbors will have differing ranges of accountability for them as well. I worried for the sister of the shooter may face the vicious cruelty of high school hazing. I was also reminded that in our Christian faith we also are called to pray for the shooter himself.

Conclusion

In our Christian faith, we often celebrate that we have a God who can bring good from evil events. The shootings in Highland Park were a reign of evil on what was to be a civic, joyful celebration. In no manner do we minimize their hurt nor dimmish their loss. Yet, in the aftermath of the event, we witnessed the community joining together to heal.

The tragedy of Highland Park was a remarkable walk for regaining my compassion as well as reimagining the foundations of spiritual direction for me. We live in an age where every action and response has become so politicized that many of us have forgotten our compassion without realizing how the layers of defense mechanisms we have built up have dulled our emotional responses of love.

In spiritual direction we lead with listening and hear with love. There is nothing mechanistic in this regard. People do not come to us because we have something to say but because we have a heart that listens. In Christian spiritual direction we believe it is the Holy Spirit that drives the bus. Our job is to get out of the way and to follow the Spirit’s lead. This is a trust that requires letting ourselves go to some extent. This faith gives us confidence to lead with love and end with love. With these bookends, do we have faith that the Spirit will take care of the middle as well? 

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Written by
Deacon Gregory Webster