Several years ago, my youngest son came home from school, asking if I would take him to see one of his friends. I didn't know the friend, so I asked him why he needed to go see him. I expected him to tell me they had a group project. But, he told me the boy's mom had come to pick her son up from school and had let him drive home. On the way home, an elderly woman who was walking her dog stepped off the curb when her dog dashed into the street. The student had the sun blaring in his eyes and didn't see her until it was too late. The lady passed away and the student had not returned to school and our son wanted to see if he was okay. I took him over to see his friend and as I dropped him off, I warned him that his friend was not going to be okay and that there would not be anything he could do or say to make him feel better. I encouraged him to just sit with his friend.
I am sure my son thought I was being a "Debbie-Downer," but, I wasn't. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was sitting in the front seat of a car going down a country road late at night and saw lights to the side of the road. As I turned my attention back to the road I suddenly saw a woman laying in the road in the headlights. I couldn't respond in time to prevent the driver from running over her. There were different stories about how she had ended up in the road and I do realize that even if I could have screamed the driver would not have been able to stop in time. I worked through some of the trauma of that night in counseling and thought it was way behind me.
Then, recently, one of my dearest friends asked me where God was in all the suffering of the hurricanes. Even though we were close in high school and I had anorexia, she had no idea of the amount of trauma, shame, and sorrow that I lived with when we were teenagers. So, I shared with her some of the hard things I had been through and how I believed God used those things to prepare me for the ministry I direct. I was trying to convey to her that, through the healing process, I had experienced great intimacy with God that I would never have experienced without having experienced trauma.
Within a week, a mutual friend posted an article written by Alice Gregory titled The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer. In it, Gregory tells the story of Maryann Gray who was in an vehicular accident in which she hit a child, causing the death of the child. She described eloquently the feelings Gray experienced, the vows she made in the aftermath, and how she managed to live with the sorrow and the shame she experienced over the years. It remained pretty much a secret from most people until there was an accident in which an 86-year-old man plowed into several people, killing them. Many people she knew were angry at the man and she, believing it to be accidental, spoke up, sharing her own story and the compassion she felt for him. Out of her telling her story, others who had similar experiences began to tell theirs as well.
I could relate to the shame she described and the vows she made. I remember sitting right behind the family of the deceased lady from the accident I had been in, during baccalaureate service as her son was graduating with my brother. I felt deep shame and wanted to hide. I hated witnessing the pain their family faced during graduation, having just lost their mom. I felt deep sorrow and suffered from flashbacks and nightmares for years. And, I still experience PTSD when I am riding in cars. Some of the people who were in accidents were treated with compassion and mercy in the aftermath, but our family didn't talk about things. So, it was no surprise that even my closest friends from that time didn't know I was in the car that night.
Maryann, who is a secular Jew, shared with the author something she had come across in the Old Testament--Cities of Refuge. God had instructed Moses to set up six different cities that were to be cities of refuge for people who killed a person accidentally. When they entered the city, a tribunal would meet with them and determine whether he or she was eligible for sanctuary. Those who committed premeditated murder were turned away and those who truly had killed accidentally were allowed to stay and were protected from those who might want to avenge the death of a loved one.
When Maryann first learned of the concept she was overcome with gratitude and said, "The Torah was talking about me!" She became obsessed with the concept and researched it extensively. As she talked to Rabbis, she learned the purpose of the cities was also to allow individuals to share some of their pain with a community. Even the tribunal offered a place to tell their story. Maryann said she realized she could have moved, lived, and worked without so much shame in a welcoming refuge community who knew about her story and her pain. She said, "If I had been exiled to a city of refuge, I might not have needed exile from myself." She had longed "to live in the world with acceptance and with opportunity, but also with the acknowledgment that in running over this child something terrible happened and it deserves attention."
When I read the article. and processed the concept of the cities of refuge I, too, was overwhelmed with gratitude for the sweetness of God who made provision for people who carried the great sorrow and shame of accidental killings. I realized how differently I might have navigated life had there been a safe haven, a place of support in the aftermath of our accident. Shame has a way of silencing us and isolating us from others. It also has a way of separating us from parts of ourselves that have to keep shameful secrets until God Himself brings them to light and provides safe people who are willing to hear the stories and sit in the sorrow with us. What I experienced so long ago did give me a compassion that runs deep and rises strong when I hear or read about others who were involved accidents of all kinds, resulting in killings--motor-vehicle accidents, falls, firearm mishaps, and accidental poisonings. I also feel strong feelings of compassion for those who like me, were not directly responsible, but were left wondering if there was something they could have done to prevent or stop an accidental death. I hope someday churches can offer safe havens for those struggling with this type of shame and pain so that shame and pain doesn't keep them separated physically or emotionally from others. Many churches do offer safe places for people to process trauma and grieve losses, and maybe some of those places are in the process of becoming “Cities of Refuge” to those who have accidently harmed another.