Memphis pastor and runner responds to recent mass shooting and abduction

In response to a string of violent attacks in her hometown, Anne Apple questions God and finds comfort – both communal and divine – in a memorial run.

Photo by Fitsum Admasu on Unsplash

“Where are you?” My phone lit up with the text message.

I was sitting in the silence and comfort of our living room reading Brian McLaren’s new book Do I Stay Christian?. But, since the text came from church-family friends, I decided to break my solitude and reply, “Downstairs. In the green room. YOU?!?”.

“Go upstairs, now. Turn off the lights. There is an active shooter in your neighborhood. Are you alone? He carjacked and killed a woman near your house.”

The fear of evil shot into my veins. I left the book, took our dog Jake, turned out the light, and went upstairs. Behind the closed door of our bedroom, I crept into the bed with my phone as my body took in one more collective trauma.

My thoughts exploded.

My breath quickened.

The practical becomes impossible.

I could not figure out how to get the news. I was fumble-fingered, anxiety-consumed, and could not turn on the television. More folks texted, called and connected with seeds of love. Eventually, a man named Ezekiel Kelly was stopped after shooting six people and killing three. Those connecting calls made all the difference that night — one was from a friend, calling from her bathtub, another from a young adult who said as she hung up, “I love you.”

Eliza Fletcher. Memphis Police Dept.

The fear, grief and anger of the mass shooting was, unfortunately, nothing new for our city, especially this month. The day before these attacks, Memphis grieved the confirmation of Eliza (Liza) Fletcher’s death. A 34-year-old kindergarten teacher, Liza was abducted during an early-morning run. For five days, there was a seed of hope that she would be found alive, but the discovery of a body behind a vacant duplex apartment building and the arrest of Cleotha Abston, 38, confirmed the worst. When hope is grayed by evil’s victory, despair moves like a lengthening shadow.

Liza, daughter to Adele and Beasley, sister to Gil; Liza, granddaughter and niece to congregants from a church I once pastored; Liza, wife to Richie and mom to James and Fordy; Liza, kindergarten teacher to so many young St. Mary’s girls, a neighbor to friends, a competitive runner in Memphis, a dear disciple who followed and shared love to so many with her generous spirit and light.

“Just no, God.”

That was my lament and my prayer the day before Liza was found, and the day after.

“Just no, God. No.”

I have lived in Memphis for over 50 years and I know that the stewardship of love is not free from pain, suffering or conflict. I marched in protests with my parents and brothers as a child, singing “We shall overcome.” I have marched with our daughters, as an adult, our voices co-mingling, shouting, “No justice. No peace.” To what benefit was my mediocre voice of protest? The lion of evil still wounds and breaks hearts with the violence on our streets.

The psalmist declares that God heals our wounds and binds up the brokenhearted (Psalm 147:3).

The gospel gives us the good news that Jesus sees the hungry, weary and longing crowds and takes compassion upon them (Matthew 9:6). There is healing in Christ’s love.

And, locked in the darkness of our bedroom that night, worn by the state of the world, with the dog as my companion, I remembered back to a hot summer’s day several years ago. I stood with church members in Civic Center Plaza in downtown Memphis as we protested and lamented the violent death of Brandon Webber, a young, Black Memphian, during an altercation with law enforcement. At the protest, a rabbi reminded us of God’s first question to Adam and Eve in the garden, “Where are you?”

“Where are you?” I asked Jesus in the dark of my room. “Where the hell are you?” “I am waiting for you to show up.”

How I wish that Memphis could rest in peace, freed to not wait nor want for someday when the darkness of violence, suffering and pain will be overcome. How I wish that Memphis and the stories that get told might testify to the miracle of love’s overshadowing light.

“Where are you?” I asked Jesus in the dark of my room. “Where the hell are you?” “I am waiting for you to show up.”

A few strong organizers had an idea and used social media to make a witness: “Let’s finish Liza’s run.” The plan was to start in Liza’s neighborhood in Midtown Memphis, run 4.1 miles to where she was abducted, and then run 4.1 miles back to the starting point. The run would take place early in the morning, the same time when she was abducted. My running buddy texted and asked, “You going to run Friday morning?” Then another friend, “Not sure I can do the whole thing, but I need to do this. You?”

And then anonymous threats came, “If they are going to finish Liza’s run, let’s finish Zeek’s job left undone” (referencing Ezekiel Kelly’s shooting spree that led me to shelter in my dark bedroom). The fear was real. The question: do you put yourself in the possibility of harm? The freedom to risk one’s life bearing witness in the name of love is a true dilemma.

In All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks writes about the necessity to define love and lands on M. Scott Peck’s definition, “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. … Love is as love does. Love is an act of will, namely, both an intention and an action. An act of will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

I witnessed love on the streets as our community finished Liza’s run. Hundreds came out at 4 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 9, to run her planned loop. Others gathered along the route to show their support. The witness was palpable. And, in case you don’t know this, it is hard to run and cry at the same time.

I asked my buddy, as we made our way to the halfway point, “what are you hearing in your head?” She remembered Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ song “My Oh My.” It is a song about baseball but for us that day, it was something more. The song’s refrain and ending took us to the memorial that glowed with candlelight and marked the spot where Liza had been abducted. The lyrics: “My city, my city, childhood, my life, that’s right … my oh my, rest in peace.”

In her essay “The Killing of Eliza Fletcher Is a Tragedy, Not a Morality Play,” Margaret Renkl reminds us, “It’s worth remembering that the entire Delta region has a long, terrible history of violence. For decades, a kidnapping that ended in murder was called a lynching.” I would add that crowds gathered to watch these killings.

And I am taken back to the garden, to God’s original question to humanity. “Where are you?”

How I hope that Memphis could know the rest in Christ’s peace, and yet, what I know is that we have a history that includes depths of suffering and pain. There is so much work to be done to lay down the rails of Love on lands that bear the blood of lynchings.

Photo by Jim Apple.

In the early hours of Sept. 9, hundreds of runners stood at Liza’s memorial, lit by candles. We held the silence; we held one another; and after some unspoken moments, we turned to run back and finish Liza’s run. I asked the runners around me, “what word should we take back with us.” Someone answered, “light.” It was our metaphor and mantra. With each step, we planted the word into our hearts and heads and the concrete beneath our feet. 

And as we ran, somewhere between the silence of the memorial and the pounding of hundreds of feet on the pavement, I began to sense Christ’s answer to the question I threw at him in the darkness of my bedroom. It came to me like an echo, rippling back from the most ancient of time: “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” And so I remembered. I remembered the babies I had baptized with that phrase; I remembered my own baptism. I remembered Liza. And I ran forward under the sunrise.