It seems that every other morning now I wake up to some new horror in the world. The massacre in Orlando – a hate crime against the LGBT community, and the worst shooting in recent memory – seems just the beginning of a long line of massacres the summer has in store for us. Terror continues abroad, and racially fueled crime continues without any sign of slowing its pace.
I’ve struggled with what to do, as we all have. I suppose we all feel helpless. Racism is far from dead, and how do I, as a white man who undoubtedly benefits from white privilege, even begin to fight such a cancer in our world? How do we walk the streets of Bangladesh and comfort the broken hearted? How do we look every LGBT person in the eyes and ask forgiveness for what has been done to them?
I’ve been silent, processing a lot. And then, this morning, I decided that there is one thing I can do – I can tell my own story. It’s the only thing I have, and it might not be much, but it’s a good place to start. It does not speak to the reality of racism in our country, or homophobia, or radical Islamic terrorism. This story in no way speaks for the black people being killed just for the color of their skin, or people killed just for their sexual orientation. I would not dare to tell their story – there are many others who do so far more effectively than I ever could. This story speaks only to one thing – my personal experience with gun violence. It is not meant to detract or distract from the conversation about abuse against minorities, but only to share a unique story of trauma. I can share my story to stand in solidarity with victims of terror, and with the hopes of changing the world in my own small way.
I will tell this story briefly. There are simply too many memories – they could fill a book. Nine years later, I still occasionally have violent nightmares triggered by the horrors I saw. I have little desire to dwell on what I witnessed, so I will be brief.
I was 19 years old. I’d finally graduated from highschool after several tumultuous, dangerous years, and I decided to go into YWAM (Youth With a Mission) to find myself, heal from the chaos of my former life, and find direction. I’d recently had a powerful mystical experience that resuscitated me, and made me mad for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and YWAM was the only place I knew to go.
And so it was I found myself in Arvada, just outside of Denver, Colorado. I was doing a School of Worship (SOW), at the YWAM base there, and it was shaping up to be a horrible three months of my life. I was lonely, depressed, and struggling with my persistant gay attractions that simply refused to leave -attractions which my missionary surroundings deeply disproved of, and encouraged me to heal from.
On one December 8th, I got a tattoo. This tattoo had been an ongoing project for several months, until I finally had the money to get it done. The tattoo was SACRIFICE, all the way down my left arm. It was, to me, the most all-incompassing image of God’s love in a single word. As Christ himself once said, “No greater love is this, than to lay down your life for your friends.”
I walked from the parlor back to the YWAM base, where a Christmas celebration was in full swing. It was Love Feast – a celebration when missionaries from all over the world gathered to celebrate Christ. There was food, and music, and performances.
That night, during a performance the children were presenting, I sent my father a pic of the tattoo. He was preaching to several hundred people at a church in San Diego, and he suddenly felt a wave of horror fill him when he saw the picture on his phone. He felt a looming threat. He tried to shake it off, but it kept growing. He started to tremble, and he stopped his sermon and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t go on. We have to pray for my son, and for YWAM Denver. Something terrible is going to happen.” I don’t know how my father knew horror was on the horizon. Maybe it was God, or maybe it was something else, but there is no doubt that he did know.
The rest of SOW left to go bowling for the evening, and I relaxed in my dorm room that was on the main hallway of the base. There was a stranger in the hallway with a dark coat talking on his cellphone. I assumed he was just another missionary.
It was when I was getting ready for bed, going in and out of my room, when the stranger opened fire on the hallway. There were five of us in his line of fire. I was the only one who wasn’t shot.
I jumped behind the door, and got into my dormroom. There wasn’t a lock on the door. I ran to the window, considered jumping out, but it was a 20 feet drop and I would brake my legs trying. It was in that moment that I felt the greatest terror I think I have ever felt in my life. Words cannot describe it. It was a primal, body terror. My higher thinking shut down. My primitive, evolutionary fear was carrying me.
With no other option, I hid in the bathroom, closed the door, pressed my back against it, and prayed over and over and over again, “Jesus protect me, Jesus protect me, Jesus protect me.” Without thinking, I reached for my phone and called my roommate and fellow SOW student Andrew.
“Andrew,” I said, once he picked up, “Someone has just come to the base and started shooting people. Go someplace safe and don’t come back.”
“Oh my God,” Andrew said. “Ok, we won’t come back. Please, Stephen, find some place safe and don’t die.”
A minute or two later, I heard a noise from the hallway. It sounded like a dog wailing. It was people wailing and crying in the hallway. That was when I knew, somehow, that the gunman was gone.
I left the dormroom, and went back out into the hallway. It was a hell I will never forget. The smell of gun smoke was heavy. Blood was on the walls. One friend was somehow making his way down the hall, with bullets in both legs, towards the community phone at the end of the hall. At the very front of the hall, my friends lay dying in a spreading pool of red.
I turned and looked down. There was a another friend, stark white and unrecognizable, staring at the ceiling, with a look of absolute terror on his face. I thought, almost passively, “he’s dying.” He must have just been behind me and to my right when the gunman fired.
I ran through the base. I made sure people were in their dorms, and safe. As I was passing through the dining room, there was a monumental CRASH and the swat team burst through the doors. I found myself facing a dozen more guns. GET DOWN ON THE GROUND they shouted, HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD. I fell to my knees and onto my stomach, hands on my head. The rest of the night – and it lasted all night – was a horrific blur. One I don’t want to tell. The news was released to us just as the sun was starting to come up: two of my friends had died.
The following days were waves of terror, nightmares, and panic the likes of which I had never felt and may never feel again. There were endless police interviews, and horror as another shooting erupted in Colorado Springs at Ted Haggard’s New Life Church. It turned out it was the same gunman, who died by gunshot at the church.
Two days later, when I was reunited with the School of Worship, they came up to me weeping, “We were just pulling into the base parking lot when you called us, Stephen.” They said, “you saved our lives.”
Eventually, the camera turns away. The eye of the public turns to other distractions. A specific shooting, for everyone else, becomes a moment in time, a thing of the past.
What no one seems to realize is that for us – those of us who lived through it – the event lives on. Our bodies continue to live the nightmare, like ghosts trapped in the Overlook Hotel. Trauma is the body’s inability to stop living that one moment over and over again.
I’ve spent years recovering. I’ve been through untold hours of therapy. I’ve been too afraid to sleep, to paralyzed to hope for a future, too frightened to get out of bed. I’ve woken up screaming from nightmares, and I’ve twice tried to throw myself out my window while dreaming of an assailant. I once even broke through the glass and wood, and woke up hanging halfway out my second story window. I’ve lost the first part of my 20s trying to reckon with the trauma.
The public may only remember the single event in time, but for everyone effected, we live in an ongoing nightmare that can be just as horrific as the original act. We live with the nightmares, the PTSD, the anxiety, the survivors guilt. We live with the inability to trust in any good future ever again, the deep-seated feeling that our lives did, in fact, end on that horrific day, and that you we moving through the world as displaced ghosts.
The event is horrific, but so is the world it leaves in it’s wake. No shooting happens in isolation. It creates new worlds of horror, not just for survivors, but for all of us. Every moment we do nothing, every moment we allow ourselves to turn away, every time we fail to do something about this epidemic, we help create a darker world. We allow the gunmen, and all the hatred they possess, to shape the world we all live in.
Be radically present to the suffering in the world, and do not look away. Be present to the ongoing suffering of the victims, the abuses and pathologies of authorities that enable violence, and the humiliation, pain, and distorted visions that drive the perpetrators to such unspeakable acts. Presence allows us to change the world; turning our gaze allows darkness to spread.