The Boston Tragedy: After the Nonsense

CAMBRIDGE, MA - APRIL 24: Norwalk, NY Police Officer Kerry Market was one of thousands who attended the memorial service for
CAMBRIDGE, MA - APRIL 24: Norwalk, NY Police Officer Kerry Market was one of thousands who attended the memorial service for slain MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, at Briggs Field in Cambridge, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Collier was killed during a shootout with the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Stephen Colbert was the voice of healing after Marathon Monday. Johannes Brahms became the voice of healing after the death of Sean Collier. Brahms came to campus Sunday night when 800 singers filled Kresge Auditorium with the music of mourning found in the German Requiem. Invoking the words of Scripture, the Requiem is not a traditional Mass, but a series of texts set to music and mourning the death of a beloved member of the community. For Brahms it was his mother; for us it was Sean Collier.

On Monday the Care Dogs came to campus to work their magic. I missed them, but stories abound. Even a really friendly care dog of a certain size can scare a canine-phobic dean. For the most part they didn't. They were a hit.

On the same day plans came together for a service to celebrate Sean's life. Eight thousand police from around world came to campus to honor the fallen officer. The day dawned rainy, but it cleared and the sun gave many their first blush of color this spring. The MIT community was surrounded by caring men and women in blue. For students it was a once in a lifetime experience. For those who were older, other such events, real or virtual, impinged a bit. For those of a certain age it was more than memorable and for all it was a day of emotion.

Every politician in Massachusetts except for Mitt Romney and Scott Brown was there. Losing an election does reorder your calendar. Tom Menino was where he should have been: in bed nursing a broken leg. Frail of late, he had pushed himself earlier in the crisis and paid a price.

Gov. Deval Patrick was tired, but warm and kind. When I spoke to him, I mentioned that I was married to Jan Randolph. He had worked with her over the years on various projects. He looked me in the eye and said: "You married up!" He is Jan's favorite governor for good reason.

The Commonwealth was well served in these hard days by the Mayor of Boston and the Governor. No posturing, no hesitation, just competent leadership. They set a high standard.

The challenge for a Chaplain in these ceremonial moments is to find words that calm and heal without stirring the ghosts of presumed entitlement. Everyone is grieving, all are feeling vulnerable and defenseless. The language I grew up with, invoking Almighty God, sounds hollow no matter how assuredly it is delivered. "Our Father" may comfort the Christian faithful, but leaves others standing on the sidelines.

After prayers I can count on discerning critiques reminding me that prayer should not be uttered with one's head in the sand. After our first service one wrote: "As an atheist/agnostic (I have been oscillating between the two.) I often feel put off when faith is made a prerequisite to feeling included in a community." He went on to thank me for my words. Another friend of long standing countered: "I was deeply offended when you said..."

I am a Christian, but when I became the Chaplain to the Institute I became the Chaplain to the whole community and that means believers and oscillating unbelievers, as well as Jews Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. And here is the invocation I offered:

We gather today and invoke the presence of God however understood;
For some the relationship is between good friends; for others, it is shouting into darkness.
We are a community committed to understanding.
We are also a people mourning a life lost to senseless violence and calculated brutality.

And we reach out because we do not understand why Sean Collier was taken away from his family,
His brothers and sisters in law enforcement;
His friends on this campus.
We reach out and acknowledge that we have no answers to our questions and we ask why?

We cultivate the strength to go on,
Drawing solace from one another and the traditions that offer meaning in our lives.
And we shout into the darkness

Even if no one hears
We say thank you for Sean
For his gifts, his compassion, his energy,
His sense of right and wrong.
We hold him in memory and we pray that we might see him again; and in the meantime
we live emboldened by the virtues he exemplified.


I am reminded of Fred Craddock's story about the chaplain serving those who landed on Normandy. When asked how he could offer solace to non-Christians he responded that the only question anyone could ask in such circumstances was: "Can I help you? It seems to me that the only prayer you can utter at such a time is one that carries heavenward the pain of all creation.