Passing the Torch of Love

Passing the Torch of Love

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

Passing the Torch of Love

If instead of a gem, or even a flower, we should cast the gift of a loving thought into the heart of a friend, that would be giving as the angels give.

George MacDonald

Tears filled the eyes of our breakfast waitress in our hotel when she learned why we had come all the way from Littleton, Colorado, to Erfurt, Germany.

“We are a group of surviving students and victims’ family members from the Columbine school shooting,” I explained, “here to offer support to your community.”

“We know what you are going through,” I said, referring to their recent school massacre at the Johann Gutenberg School. A nineteen-year-old former student sneaked in with a nine-millimeter pistol, dressed in all black and a ski mask, and fatally shot thirteen teachers, two teenage students, a police officer, and then killed himself. Just days before our visit, tens of thousands of mourners had filled the town square on the steps of the ancient medieval cathedral to grieve this unprecedented act of violence that had ravaged their lives forever.

“My niece, Inga, witnessed that angry student when he shot her teacher to death at school that day. She still cannot eat or sleep well,” our waitress said in a soft voice, wiping tears with her brown calico apron. The lines on her forehead and her disheveled auburn hair revealed her own stress and anxiety.

“Please tell her that friends from the Columbine school tragedy have traveled from America to meet her. We understand what she is going through. If she wants to talk, she and any of her friends are welcome to come to our hotel here tonight.”

We had no way to get the names or phone numbers of these traumatized young people. We had simply flown in faith to their quaint medieval city where Martin Luther once preached in 1501, believing that we would be directed to them some way. I was gratified and amazed at how quickly this divine connection came about within just an hour of our arrival.

Our waitress excused herself to regain her composure and then call her niece. That one phone call, and a front-page article in their local paper about our “mission of mercy” caused teens reeling in grief from this fresh tragedy to come out of the woodwork to find us.

Word spread quickly to these traumatized high-school students and teachers that a group had come from Colorado to express sympathy and compassion. We placed two six-foot-wide floral wreathes of gorgeous gold and purple flowers on the steps of the Gutenberg school. The burning candles and clumps of bouquets were reminiscent of the Columbine memorial displays. The white satin sash draped across these giant floral symbols of sympathy read, Mit Liebe Aus Littleton, Colorado, “With Love From Littleton, Colorado.”

Officials would not sanction a school meeting, believing these young people needed no outside help. However, the students knew what they needed and came by the dozens to seek us out late at night in our modest hotel.

“Are you sent by some American business or government corporation?” Friedrich asked, representing a group of six somewhat reluctant teens standing behind him.

“No. We all paid our own way with the help of some of our friends in America,” I told them, startled by their suspicion. Friedrich translated for those who did not understand English as well. Their eyes widened. “Thank you . . . we don’t know what to say,” several replied.

Visibly shaken, two blond girls with nose and lip piercings embraced and began to cry. “Please, sit, and let’s learn each other’s names,” my husband began, trying to make them feel comfortable. The conversations began. . . .

“My favorite art teacher was gunned down at my feet,” mumbled Marta, squirming in her chair. “She was one of my best friends.”

“I looked out in the hall and saw my history teacher lying there on the ground. I thought he was just playing dead as a joke, until I bent down to talk to him and saw the blood,” remarked Hans, catatonically.

“We were hiding for hours in our classroom, all huddled together, listening to the screams and gunshots just outside our doors, . . .” Heidi, a younger girl, cried, reliving the horrific moments.

“I’ve been on the faculty here for twenty years,” an attractive petite short-haired teacher reflected, “and I lost a dozen of my closest colleagues in one day. I’ve been to twelve funerals.” Her voice broke. “Why am I still alive?”

We listened to them. We wept with them. They did not need to be muzzled by shame or wear a tough facade to mask their terror. It was all right to cry. Then they asked to hear our stories.

Beth and Dana shared the horrendous experience of losing their precious daughter and sister, seventeen-year-old Rachel Scott, who was the first to be shot down by one of the murderers at Columbine. Students on our team tearfully opened their hearts to relive nightmares of hiding under library tables while their friends beside them were slaughtered before their eyes. Sobs followed by silence punctuated our time together. A holy exchange of “knowing” one another’s suffering bound us together as one.

The natural questions followed.

How did you get through the pain, the nightmares?

How long did it take you to want to live again?

I feel guilty that I am alive. Did you feel that way, too?

The natural answers (or nonanswers in some cases) shared in this sacred meeting of open, wounded hearts came flowing out with tenderness and sensitivity. “It was our relationship with Jesus that got us through and still gets us through the heartache. Without Him we could not have made it. He carried us through every step and stage of our grief,” Rachel’s mother, Beth, shared in her soft and compassionate way, passing around a picture of Rachel for everyone to see. The sincerity of her mother’s heart and words penetrated deeply.

By the end of our week, we had become friends in affliction, acquainted through grief, and healed with compassion. We had issued invitations to the community to a public expression of solidarity on our last evening. We gathered in the very old ornate high school auditorium with dark paneled walls and stained glass windows. Students and families and people from the community began to arrive.

A middle-aged gentleman shyly approached me, very reverent in his demeanor. “I am William Brown. My wife, Helga, was one of the teachers who was murdered. I have written a song in her memory. May I have the honor of playing it for you?” he asked, his eyes markedly red from crying.

“I am very sorry for your loss,” I offered, “and it would be a great honor for us, and to her, for you to play your composition for us.” We welcomed our guests and then signaled to William. He slowly walked to the piano and introduced the song written for and dedicated to his late wife.

“My wife loved teaching because she was passionate about her students. We will never forget her,” he said with sincere admiration.

A blonde girl, maybe thirteen-years-old, clung to him, keeping her hand on his shoulder as he tried to compose himself before starting. “That’s his daughter,” a student next to me whispered into my ear. William’s haunting and beautiful composition to Helga filled the room and moved everyone deeply.

The lighting of the Memorial Torch, an Olympic-size gold torch engraved with all the names of the victims at Columbine High School, was the climax of the evening.

This very torch, with its brilliant flame, had been gripped by hundreds of thousands of youth around the world, pledging to counteract violence with love and compassion. Now the invitation to lay a hand on and “take up this torch of love” was offered to the most recent victims of the cruel pain inflicted by hate and violence.

I watched, deeply moved, as the entire front of the auditorium filled with students and families responding to this call. We passed the glowing torch carefully from hand to trembling hand.

In the end, no one wanted to leave. We lingered long in the afterglow of love, and I witnessed a new look in many eyes: hope.

When it was time for us to return home, we had breakfast once more in our hotel restaurant. The auburn waitress we now knew as Ingrid was working and rushed over to us, much more like an American friend than the reserved German woman we had met that first day.

“My niece is eating and sleeping now! Her heart is so much better,” she reported enthusiastically. “We are so very grateful—,” her voice broke as emotion welled up and tears wet her cheeks, “—that you came to us.”

And so were we.

Claudia Porter

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