“…the memorabilia and cards had become a huge burden…. What does a family do with a thousand teddy bears?”
While washing dishes at the kitchen sink, a radio interview caught my attention. Andres Gonzalez is a photographer and coming out with a book of photos, the result of spending five years documenting the aftermath of mass shootings in American schools. The book is titled, American Origami, because he said among the crosses, Jewish stars, angels, and other tangible pieces of grief sent to families and survivors of mass gun violence, he “found a lot of origami cranes.”
The first place he visited was Northern Illinois University, where there was a shooting in 2008. He met with a librarian who had taken on the task of cataloging items sent to the families of the slain, and general deliveries to the campus meant for condolence. He said, “what I wasn’t really expecting to see was the massive amount of material they had collected. It just went on and on and on…I didn’t know that the memorabilia would be such a big part of the project…”
He found a similar pattern as he went to other schools and universities campuses that were still processing their trauma: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Parkland were the schools he mentioned in the eight-minute clip. He saw thousands of handwritten letters, some of it confessional, with people trying to connect with the bereaved through their own tragedies. But the larger portion had the sound of Hallmark language as in, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “You are in our thoughts and prayers.” It was language that, over time, began to feel rote and somewhat generic.
When asked if there had been a conversation that stuck in his mind and became a recurring theme, he spoke of a student, a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting. She said the memorabilia and cards had become a huge burden, the volume too much to catalogue and store.
What does a family do with a thousand teddy bears? Most of it is passed on to the city or school who eventually destroy the material because there is simply not enough time or space to process it. Sandy Hook was so inundated with stuff, that at first, they tried to hold it at City Hall, but then moved it to an airplane hangar. When that was filled, “the Connecticut State Library curated a very small collection, but the majority of it was incinerated.” Keeping up with the packages and mail became more in the service of the person giving than the people that had actually been through the violence.
As I listened, words of an Old Testament prophet came to mind, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In its scriptural context, Micah is chastising the Hebrew people for their empty gestures. “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand of rivers of oil” as a sacrifice?
The answer was no.
The temple held a vast platform where hundreds of sacrifices could be offered at a time, and a thousand in a day. I suppose it was a feel-good moment when rams were offered on the altar. The blood flowed, and the smoke rose with the scent of roasted meat. It seemed something was being done for the expiation of our sin. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t even desired. What is good and what does the Lord require: justice, kindness, and humility before God.
It’s time Americans put aside saying and doing what feels good, and do what is required. Become a living sacrifice, “holy and acceptable to God.” Be inconvenienced. Become burdened with an obligation to create a kinder society where violence is not the daily diet and young men are not so alienated and radicalized that they pick up a gun and fire at their peers. Tutor in public schools, coach little league, become a youth counselor at your church, strike up a conversation with the kid that walks the streets in your neighborhood.
I can’t say what you should do; only you can answer that question. But apparently what the victims don’t want is another teddy bear sent to their home by UPS.
“…do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”