A mentally ill gunman invades a peaceful gathering of people assembling to participate in their rights as citizens of our country. He shoots people at point blank range killing several and wounding many more.

Most who are following the news coming from Arizona and who listened to the president’s speech last night would know that I am referring to the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and her constituents and collegues at a Safeway Grocery Store in Tuscon, AZ. All I did was remove the specific names of victims, dates, and venue.

Stripped down to its essence, this shooting looks eerily similar to another tragedy that struck us in Binghamton nearly two years ago when a mentally ill man armed with a pistol killed twelve people at the American Civic Association. The names and faces change, but the effects are the same. People die.

It shouldn’t suprise you then that as I was watching the memorial service last night, memories from our own tragedy came crashing down on me. I remembered the sights and sounds as we tried to make sense of what happened and the utter chaos that we endured as we tried to put life back together. The press conferences, the debriefings, the endless meetings – all in addition to the normal work that confronts us here at the Broome County Council of Churches – creating long work days not leaving much time to reflect on what had transpired.

Then there was the intrigue of how many flowers that were planted and how many wreaths we included to memorialize the dead. For a year after the event, in almost every conversation about the memorial services, I was asked, “If you had it to do all over again, would you have included the wreath and flower for the shooter?” To which I responded it was my decision, I own it and I believe it was the right decision. You can fault me with a lot of things, but shirking responsibility is not one of them.

History is always seen in how a story is told and to not include the shooter does not honor the dead nor make our job of restoring sanity to this situation any easier. A mentally ill man was responsible for the ACA shooting and mentally ill men have done other terrible things in ensuing year at both Fort Hood and now in Tuscon, AZ. We need to remember that fact and move from remembering to concrete steps of kindness and care that address the needs of the mentally ill and those who strive to help them in our community.

It’s easy for us to point fingers and diagnose the faults of others. It is difficult and risky for us to begin caring for each other and living in a community that values kindness and compassion. It’s easy for us to demand justice and to condemn those who would react to others with violence. It’s hard for us to take a deep introspective look into our own hearts and souls and see the violence and hatred that exists there. It’s easy to live confined behind walls that would protect us from other people – including the walls of prejudice and bigotry – but it’s hard to tear down the walls and learn to walk in mercy and empathy.

I don’t think that there are any easy answers to these types of tragedies. I particularly liked these words that our President used during his eulogy at the memorial service last night: “The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.”

May it be so for us as we strive to create a better Broome County.

Peace and Towels,

Joe Sellepack

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