“Not one more” was the sentiment and catchphrase of the community in Isla Vista, the town near Santa Barbara where Elliot Rodger shot and killed six people. Christopher Michaels-Martinez, a 20 year-old man, was among the victims and it was his father, Richard, who has passionately enjoined citizens and politicians to enact gun reform.
But it seems inevitable that, when we talk about gun reform, it will always be too little, too late. Yesterday, a gunman opened fire at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian liberal arts college, killing one person and injuring three others. A student named John Meis was working as a building monitor nearby and took advantage of the pause while the shooter reloaded his gun to pepper spray him. Other students and faculty members joined Meis in restraining the shooter until police arrived. The shooter, a 26 year-old man named Aaron Yberra, was armed with a shotgun, a knife, and extra ammunition. He is now in custody.
I’m a student at Seattle Pacific University, although I have never set foot on campus. As a candidate for my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, I attend two residencies per year–one in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. I will graduate in August without ever having been on campus, which is both strange and very normal for a low-residency program. That is part of why I chose SPU in the first place. I could pursue an academically rigorous degree in a faith-based setting without having to move.
Because I’m not on campus, I cannot definitively say what this event has done to the school’s psyche. I can share with you the fear and devastation and hope I’ve seen on social media, or tell you about the frantic text messages I sent yesterday to check in with an on-campus friend. I can tell you that the reasons people chose a school like Seattle Pacific–its tight-knit community, its commitment to the Christian faith, its legacy of service–have been on display for onlookers to see. There were many gatherings for prayer and grieving yesterday; there will be another prayer service today at noon. They are expecting so many people to attend that there is also a live stream being set up for overflow.
As I sit safely at home in San Francisco, surrounded by essays to revise for my thesis, I find that all I want is to be with my peers. The urge toward solidarity in times of mourning is a strong pull, and I want not only to pray but also to be physically present to those on campus. I can’t be, so I will watch from afar and keep checking in with friends. Universities are supposed to be safe places. I saw one interview with a student who said she regularly walked home from SPU’s campus late at night, by herself, without ever second-guessing her safety. I doubt she’ll be able to do that again anytime soon.
It isn’t just a sense of safety that’s lost after something like this, though. This shooting affects the history of Seattle Pacific. Like when people say “Virginia Tech” or “Sandy Hook,” the school will now be synonymous with an on-campus shooting, at least for the next few years. That’s a heavy burden to bear.
It’s finals week at Seattle Pacific, and students will soon be going home for the summer. Most of them didn’t witness the shooting; some weren’t on campus for it. Some live hundreds of miles away. But we all feel the sadness not only at the tragic loss of one student’s life, but at the now-confirmed knowledge that we are not exempt from this kind of danger.
SPU’s provost, Jeff Van Duzer, sent an email last night to the whole Seattle Pacific community. He laid out some practical plans for the day to come, including the cancellation of classes and the regular schedule of the library and food services. After he had shared all the logistics that needed to be shared, he wrote this: “As I reread this email, I am struck by how mechanical it sounds. Please forgive me. I’m not sure I know how to put into words tonight the odd mixture of sadness, grief, comfort, community, despair, and hope that I’m feeling. I trust that in the days ahead God will lead us as a community together as we heal and move on from here. In the meantime, I draw comfort from the conviction, if not the experience in the moment, that God is always with us.”
That is what we do after horrific events like yesterday’s. We express that we are at a loss for words, because what words can capture the preciousness of human life? We trust in a good God who we still do not understand, against whom we rail and to whom we pray. We wait. And we hope, often impossibly, that not one more will be lost.