April 16, 2013
Boston Marathon Tragedy: Fellowship Tested
A Boston pastor reflects on yesterday's bombings.
Even people who never run treasure the Boston Marathon. Some years our family lines up early to cheer on the runners along the race route or gather near the Copley Square finish line. Other years we watch on TV. The city celebrates.
The Boston Marathon brings international attention and excitement every year. It happens on Patriot’s Day, when the Boston area celebrates the firing of the first shots of the American Revolution in the battles of Lexington and Concord, two beautiful towns northwest of the city. Patriot’s Day pride is huge around Boston. Re-enactors fill the air above Lexington green with musket smoke and the strident beat of drums and pipes. We celebrate wheel-chair athletes and running-impaired athletes, elite world class runners, and everyday athletes competing in the race thousands and thousands of runners fill our streets, cheered on by many times that number from the sidelines.
This was the 117th running of our marathon. In the eyes of Bostonians, this is the only marathon that counts. With "Heartbreak Hill" and a downtown finish, there is nothing quite like it. The entire race is televised, city streets are closed down to accommodate runners and spectators, and many of Boston's workers have the day off as a local holiday. The Boston Red Sox play an early home game too, so the city is teeming with people.
Yesterday began with a great start. The early races went off without a hitch. The Red Sox pulled out a ninth inning win. The wheel-chair and men's and women's winners won and wore their laurel wreaths. The city’s marathon fellowship was in full swing.
Then the first bomb went off and the fellowship was tested in a new way.
I first heard about bombs going off near as I was driving to pick up my wife. She works in Boston's Government Center area which is about a half mile from the marathon finish. She saw a lot of commotion and police officers waving passengers onto subway trains, but she didn't know yet what had happened.
Our next thought was to call our youngest daughter, a freshman at Northeastern University in Boston. But we couldn't get a call through. Later, we heard that immediately after the bombs went off, all cell phone communication was shut down out of concern that more devices could be triggered from a cell phone. She was safe, but it took a while for us to learn that. Our concerns for our loved ones were shared by many people who had family and friends in the city. Every year we have friends from church or work who run the marathon. Thankfully, we have not heard of anyone we know personally who was injured.
News cameras covering the race were in position to record the explosions. Most of their reporting was timely and good. They caught images of confused runners, stunned spectators and early witnesses of the carnage. Every Boston TV stations switched its programming to non-stop marathon tragedy coverage. We saw numbers of the dead and injured flashing across our TV screens. Some of this news was helpful since people want good information about how to track friends who were running or what parts of the city were being shut down due to the investigation. The race course was being diverted to a new finish line. All visitors to some of the major Boston hospitals were told to leave as hospital staffs went into crisis mode.
But misinformation also clouded our understanding during the first several hours. News stations incorrectly reported that up to five explosive devices had been found in the marathon area and defused. Another report claimed that none of these items included explosive material. Eyewitnesses close to the bomb sites gave reports of numerous trauma amputations: legs and ankles being blown off by the explosions. Hospital reports were coming in. Three people were confirmed as dead, including an 8-year-old boy who was watching the race with his family.
One report held that police had surrounded a man with a black hooded sweatshirt and a backpack. Then that report was denied. Another report claimed that a Saudi man with burns on his hands was in custody. Then the Boston Police Commissioner went on the air to say that while this person was being questioned, the police had no suspect in custody. Prejudicial statements cropped up, prompting explanations that the marathon is an international event with people from many nations there to run or to watch the world's elite runners. Middle-eastern garb does not make one a terrorist in a city like Boston, especially on the day of the marathon.
As I think over yesterday’s events, I ponder how much worse it could have been. The first bomb went off in close proximity to a medical tent dedicated to treating marathon-related injuries (think dehydration, sprained ankles, pulled muscles, Achilles’ tendon strains and plantar fasciitis). Within seconds from the bomb bursts, medical professionals from this tent, police, firefighters and EMT's, and national guard members were seen racing toward the bomb sites while dazed runners fell or ran away from the noise. Medical teams and volunteers sprung into action and began treating wounds, tying tourniquets, using fingers to put pressure on wounds to stop the bleeding. Cameras rolled as people were carried out on stretchers. Emergency vehicles were loaded with injured people almost as quickly as they arrived. SWAT teams quickly arrived to cordon off blocks of the city, combing it for more explosive devices.
These first responders were instantly on the scene, and they reacted quickly and skillfully. Boston is home to several of the best hospitals in the world. Public-safety teams were already on high alert simply because of the high profile of the Boston Marathon. The speedy evacuation, the coordination of police, city officials, hospitals and medical teams was amazing, even heroic. Preparation for sports injuries placed medical professionals and volunteers in position to respond with amazing speed and skill.
In his response to the tragedy, the President called Boston "a resilient town." It is. People are waking up today to bloody photos on the front pages of the newspapers. We are also hearing from runners who vow to return next year. We are hearing story after story of acts of kindness toward strangers that show Boston at its best.
Amid tragedy and bloodshed, Boston responded well to the attack on our fellowship. In many ways, I hope for the church to respond with the same level of care and love. Like those who gather for the marathon, the church is a diverse, unusual fellowship.
We welcome old friends and strangers.
We rally around the hurt and the broken.
We bind up wounds, help survivors to press on, and offer kindness to strangers.
We work to communicate truth clearly in the midst of confusion and misinformation.
As a pastor, I want to ask how well our churches are prepared to react to crisis.
Are we prepared to seek out and care for those we love, both known and unknown to us?
Are we ready to share correct and helpful information in a loving way?
Have we coordinated the skill sets and resources we do have to be ready when the unthinkable strikes?
May our churches, when tested, react with the same excellence that Boston’s marathon fellowship did yesterday.
Paul Atwater is senior pastor at North River Community Church in Pembroke, Massachusetts.