Memorial Fences – The OKC Bombing, 20 Years Later

9:02 a.m.

On April 19th, 1995 at 9:02 a.m., I was in keyboarding class at Putnam City High School, about 8 miles away from downtown Oklahoma City, knowing nothing of what madness was just unleashed from a yellow Ryder truck at the Murrah federal building.

Our class kept on increasing our words-per-minute on our QWERTY keyboards, even though, the tension was mounting as the teacher was having hushed conversations in the doorway. Our class had it easier than others–one classmate remembers her teacher leaving the class altogether for a long time, scaring the students into wondering what was happening. In the days before cell phones, rapid communication couldn’t penetrate the walls between classes, and my class’s bad boy Charlie didn’t have his usual FM radio headphone hidden in a hoodie-covered ear to hear the news.

Oklahoma City Bombing 20 Years LaterThe ringing bell–which began the walking break between classes–burst open the dam as students poured into the halls sharing what they heard in groups, folks leaving circles to start another circle, teachers holding each other’s shoulders. My classmate Trisha remembered seeing students crying in the halls, and one boy sobbing on the floor of principal’s office.

That Tuesday was an odd day because students kept to the same classroom schedule even though teaching was not taking place and when the bell rang we sought out news or answers in the hallways. My classmate Diep remembered classmates asking a lot of questions.“How did it collapse like that?  Could anyone survived that?  What caused that?”  It was a confusing time with so much speculation going on.

To deal with the speculation, by lunchtime most teachers got TVs on carts and rolled them into the classrooms to provide class-to-class coverage. My classmate Wesley said, “We watched the chaos unfold for the rest of the day (and days to come) from one class to the next.”

The TV on the cart was important because it initiated the moment the news went from horrifying to personal. I distinctly remember when the TV relayed the information that a nursery was at the building. My heart stuck in my throat–my father was a clown who did children’s entertainment–could he have been working there that day at that nursery? When I went to school that morning, was he already in his work clothes? I couldn’t remember. I told my teacher and she said that they would call if there was a problem. My dad picked me up from school later that day–he was fine, but he had worked there in the previous year.

The bombing became even more real the next day. My friend Daniel’s father was a first responder, and on the school bus he shared his father’s experiences of carrying people out of the rubble. Later that day, his dad was on cleanup and went to pick up someone’s shoe from the street and found a foot still inside it. For once our school bus wasn’t a place of bullying and awkward leg-touching–it was a community unified by horror.

Oklahoma City Bombing 20 Years LaterBut my strongest memory was yet to come. At some point a day or two later, our family went to the bombing site and touched the now-iconic chain-link fence that was decorated with teddy bears, notes of encouragement, notices of prayers, and American flags. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of notes and remembrances of the victims that folks had made on our Bible Belt wailing wall, especially the stuffed animals for the 19 children and infants who died.

It was less than 72 hours of my high school years, and yet its memories echo into eternity.

Trauma

[Trauma] is an event that continues, that persists in the present. Trauma is what does not go away. It persists in symptoms that live on in the body, in the intrusive fragments of memories that return. It persists in symptoms that live on in communities, in the layers of past violence that constitute present ways of relating.

Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, p. 2

Most of my classmates were 15 that day–the next half of our lives would be marked by mass murder in unlikely places in America. The Jonesboro shooting, Columbine school shooting, September 11th, the Virginia snipers, the Amish school shootings, the Virginia Tech shootings, and many other mass casualty events all took place before my class turned 30 and excited young adulthood. How’s that for a coming of age? Waking every day wondering what the news will bring.

Oklahoma City Bombing 20 Years LaterIn a world of mass trauma, transmitted through mass instant communication, how do we heal? How do we move on when every news article re-opens the wounds? When we don’t know if the Twitter alert is “another one.” While hearing about trauma is not comparable to those in the traumatic situations themselves, there’s an echo of it that is shared across humanity. Ask any Baby Boomer and they can tell you where they were when Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated when 9/11 happened when they heard about Newtown elementary shootings.

Maybe we don’t have to heal, “move on,” or “find a silver lining” to make sense of things. Boston University professor Shelly Rambo in her 2013 book Spirit and Trauma describes trauma as persistent and still-raw experiences that may scab over but never quite heal. But rather than lament that limitation of the human psyche, we can live into a new reality:

Redemption in the abyss of hell is not about deliverance from the depths but, instead, about a way of being in the depths, a practice of witnessing that senses life arising amid what remains. [This] story is not a story of rising out of the depths , but a transformation of the depths themselves.

Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, p. 172

Every traumatic event does not have to echo grief and trigger setbacks in recovery. It can, instead, trigger responses of love, beauty, an effort to mend relationships, building of fences to honor the dead, writing of letters to loved ones. We can remain in love with our fellow humans even when we utterly fail one another. We lament, we bury our dead, and we seek new ways of being that render that form of death inert and powerless.

I find more meaning in the fences, in the aftermath of trauma, than I do in the trauma itself and its unspeakable voids. It’s basic psychology: we can’t make meaning from trauma, so we often create it. But my understanding of Rambo’s work is that we ought to find our meaning in the way we remain “with” each other and in the ever-present response to the world’s failures of decency.

Perhaps by caring for our fellow humans in increasingly more holistic ways, we can as a human race eradicate these inclinations and causations so that the traumas lessen in frequency and there is the possibility for healing.

They Know.

Seven years after that fateful day, the Oklahoma campus ministries of the United Methodist Church coordinated a mission trip from Oklahoma to New York City to do some urban revitalization and service. That was April 2002, about seven months after 9/11. During the mission trip, our group of 30 college students visited the site of the Twin Towers. We stood in the back of a long line of people waiting to get close to the same type of memorial fence that surrounded the Murrah Building.

Then we were whisked to the front of the line, past the hundreds of others. A worker heard we were from Oklahoma, and he ushered us to the front, saying “These are Oklahomans. They know how we feel.”

As I walked in and touched that familiar fence, I felt the weight of his words.

Yes. Yes we do.

May we be the last that carry that burden.

Rev. Jeremy Smith and Family | Hacking ChristianityThis article originally appeared on Hacking Christianity and is republished with permission.

Rev. Jeremy Smith is a United Methodist clergyperson who blogs about faith, young clergy issues, technology, internet theory, and geeky topics. Jeremy is currently serving at First United Methodist Church in Portland Oregon. You can find more of his thoughts at his website Hacking Christianity.

 

 

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22 Comments on "Memorial Fences – The OKC Bombing, 20 Years Later"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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George Nixon Shuler
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Spadaj!

Kevin
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Paul and Russ,
You are wasting your time. Best to engage in real dialogue with rational people. A battle of wits against someone with only half a load is sort of pointless.

George Nixon Shuler
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Oh, so now I’m “witless”? Why is that, pray tell? Because I refuse to buy the lies you are seliing, dear fellow.

Kevin
Guest

Russ,
Sometimes you just need to get off the merry go round. Let it go.

George Nixon Shuler
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Bullies cower when confronted. Like cockroaches scurry when lights are illuminated, so do the opponents of Enlightenment hastily retreat when light is shined on their dark deeds.

George Nixon Shuler
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Don’t let the door hit ya where the Good Lord split ya

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Do you really think I care what you think? Your tiresome insults and recitations of right-wing talking points do not impress me. They reflect the heartless, vicious nature in your soul which you exhibit here in your constant bullying. Inside is the sad, scared little boy, not unlike that of the bomber responsible for the atrocity mentioned in this article.

George Nixon Shuler
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Reply to Paul w. of 4/22/15 @ 1842: My dear fellow, the one doing the trolling is you and only you here. It is common for those like you, who feel threatened when opinions different from your own are expressed, to react irrationally as you have done here, if you truly.believe I am the “troll”. I suspect however that you do not, unless your definition of the term is simply one with an opinion contrary to yours, in which case it is a badge of honor, for your opinion is not informed by facts or good intentions. as you use… Read more »
Paul W.
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Does trolling ever get old for you? Serious question.

Paul W.
Guest
I know this conversation is frustrating, Russ, but please don’t stoop to George’s level (i.e., with your next to last sentence). Trust me, I share your frustration. George wants us down in the mud with him and we have to maintain a higher standard. Also, although George appears to be unable to separate liberal theology (i.e., “spiritualizing” the Bible and reading one’s own biases into the text) from liberal politics, I think we need to be clear that this is not about political differences of opinion (at least those regarding positions that are not at odds with Christian and Wesleyan… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
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A frequent trick of bullies everywhere is to accuse others of what they do as you have done here. It is I who has not sunk to your depraved carping. The “authority” which you desire for yourself is denied by those who seek to move the UMC away from the Westboro Baptist model you prefer. It is not going to happen. Perhaps Vladimir Putin’s melding of Leninism and right-wing religion might be more to your liking than a free and just nation which provides a wall of separation between the free individual and the christofascist.

Paul W.
Guest

When I read this type of retrospective article on a Christian website, I always hope to see a clear Christian discussion framing the events in the context of sin, evil, our fallen world, our fallen nature, and the redemption and hope Christ provides. Sadly, I more often find just personal experiential reflections combined with armchair psychology.

George Nixon Shuler
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Those concepts are not mutually exclusive.

Paul W.
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Methinks you would argue with a ham sandwich if you suspected it of being conservative.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Paul W, 4/21, 11:55: it is obvious you are arguing in bad faith. This sort of engaging in bullying is exactly why the right wing is losing the cultural war, my friends. These are not nice people; these are deceivers, mockers, bullies, and attempted exercisers of power and control. When their nastiness is challenged, they get nastier. Yes, they “just want their country [church, etc.] back” but it’s no longer theirs. The gnashing of the teeth of the bitter foes of progress is sweet music indeed.

Paul W.
Guest

George, I don’t get you. You called yourself out for your bad behavior in your last post, and, yet, unless I’m interpreting what you wrote incorrectly, it seems you are here once again spitting venom and levying bizarre false conspiratorial accusations? If you are playing a game, I don’t get it. I read your description of your bad behavior and intentions above as an apology – were you instead bragging?

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

And the projection and bullying by the right-wing caucus continues. I a not surprised. You have lied in your venomous posts, refused to provide evidence, and shown yourself for the willingness to avoid the truth every time, I feel sorry for you.

Paul W.
Guest

George, I appreciate that you have finally started looking into your own heart, taking inventory, and now recognize how you appear to others and that the desire for control and power is what is driving you. You really have it within you to end your hatred, attacks, and what you refer to as your sad, scared minstrel show. We are rooting for your success, George!

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

And here we have more bullying from the local loudmouth. Namecalling? Check. Claiming to speak for others, whose hatreds are enabled by his attacks? Check. Pathetic, as usual. What a sad, scared minstrel show this poor fellow puts on, all the while claiming to act out of his conviction. This individual believes in nothing but the desire for power and control over others.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

I’m a conservative. It is a conservative value to act on the basis of what is rational. I presented to you a rational concept which you have chosen to ignore and instead have issued a personal attack against me. If you disagree with the point I made, please say so, and why. If you are unable to articulate what I asked there,or otherwise refuse to do so, it provides prima facie evidence you are yourself arging in bad faith.

George Nixon Shuler
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The failure of the Department of Homeland Security to stick to the report on Homegrown Right-Wing Terrorism places us in continual danger of a reoccurrance. While Islamophobia is convenient for self-serving politicians to invoke, the danger is greater that the next mass bomber is named Bubba rather than Abdul. The failure of our corporate media to report this also leads to crimes like FrazierGlenn Miller’s mass shootings at Jewish institutions in the Kansas City suburbs (which killed three Christians but no Jews). The apocalyptic rhetoric of the hatemongers (“approval of gay marriage will lead to God’s withdrawal of his blessing… Read more »
Richard Hicks
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The older I get the more I like haiku or haiku-like gists of wisdom. Better Rumi than Shakespeare. If you can’t get the gist said in 140 characters – cut!

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