Facing a culture of gun violence with kindness

As a millennial and former youth ministry worker, Eric Nolin is no stranger to a world where school shootings happen. There's much to be done, but perhaps one place to start is with a kind word.

Photo by M ZHA on Unsplash

“So, that’s what you need to do in the event of an active shooter.” The detectives finished their presentation and looked out at the silent lecture hall. “Any questions?” You could have heard a pin drop.

For an hour and a half, we listened intently to our presenters as they instructed us on what do to in the event of an active shooter. We learned about police response protocol, went over evacuation plans, and even brainstormed ideas for constructing barricades. My peers and I were resident assistants (RAs) — student leaders selected to live among the student population to help them grow and thrive on our college campus.

I joined the RAs because I liked the idea of building community on my campus. The perk of a single dorm room was also quite enticing. But, when I signed up, I had not anticipated that I would be expected to help lead others in the struggle to survive an active shooter.

Barely 20 at the time, I remember how that day in the lecture hall with the police detectives profoundly impacted my sense of security. Attending college in the early 2010s, my cohort was no stranger to school shootings. We’d grown up hearing about Columbine and Virginia Tech, but those events still felt distant. Not here. Not at my school.

But when we talked about barricading the door to our classroom, brainstorming how desks, chairs, and books — familiar elements for academic achievement — could be transformed into tools for survival, it brought the threat closer to home.

It could be me in a classroom someday, surrounded by my peers, sweaty and terrified as we press whatever we can find up against the door as we hear the pop-pop-pop of automatic weapon fire echoing down the hallway.

Fortunately, that was never my experience, and my college years passed without incident. But that hasn’t been the case for everyone.

In more recent years as a youth ministry worker, I have seen how the fear has spread. Parents are terrified to send their children to school as more and more names get added to the list: Sandy Hook, Parkland, Uvalde, Nashville. The list only grows.

As I continue to grapple with this reality, I feel deep sadness for what has been lost. It is hard to be creative, to learn, or to explore when you live under the shroud of impending doom. Academic institutions are supposed to be where art and culture are formed. They are not war zones where children and teenagers learn self-defense. As the violence spreads, the losses only grow.

Faced with such a reality, I ask myself: what is going on? It’s easy to get tied up in symptoms, to confront the gun laws in our country and seek policy changes. While this is a good place to start, we must look deeper. As Christians, Christ calls us to look deeper, to look inward, to look at the bonds of relationship that bind all people together.

Somewhere along the way, we have lost the precious value of human life. And as we grow more distant from one another, it only becomes easier to do violence to each other.

Feelings of loneliness, isolation and hopelessness are so prevalent in our society. A pre-pandemic Cigna survey revealed that 61% of American adults feel lonely, with 47% highlighting that “there relationships with others are not meaningful.” Over the last few years, things seem to only be getting worse, the relational tethers between people growing even weaker. It has become too easy to discard the well-being of my neighbor so that I can preserve my sense of tranquility and priority.

I was young when the Virginia Tech shooting happened. I remember reading descriptions of the gunman, and what stood out to my young mind was that he was described as a loner, isolated and excluded. At the time, I wondered if, given the opportunity, I would have tried to befriend him. Could things have been different?

I don’t know. It’s hard to replay these moments in history and speculate. It’s harder still to know the answer to the violence crippling our country. I do know, however, that there are people out there who are hurting; people who are lonely, cut off from the bonds of relationship that bind us together as God’s creation. And as followers of Christ, I believe we have a responsibility to seek out the image of God in those around us, to shine light on the bonds that bind us together, and maybe, someday, change the course of history with one small act of love.