The young people in the community I serve are currently reeling from the unexpected and tragic death of one of their own. I didn’t know the young man, Devante Waites, and I don’t even know the full circumstances of his death other than it was a senseless tragedy. Apparently, the violence he was trying to stop spilled over and took his life. A young man, acting out of goodness, was struck down before he even had the chance to really begin living a very promising life.
I wish I had the words and wisdom to know what to say to those young people who are mourning the loss of a friend, a brother, a classmate, a teammate… But I don’t.
I remember when I was in high school I got word that a classmate had taken his own life. Dave had always been the one to make us laugh. He was smart and funny and full of potential. But what we didn’t see was that he was also full of pain. Dave wasn’t a close friend, but we had many classes together and it seemed so hard to swallow the news that he wasn’t going to be there anymore, his tall, lanky frame goofing off and cutting up, drawing the teachers’ ire with his antics before drawing their awe with his smarts.
I remember that there was nothing to be said. Dave was gone and no matter how eloquently people might be able to string some words together, they weren’t going to bring him back. There would be an empty chair where he should have been and that was the reality we were going to have to live with.
In my role as a minister, I often find myself in positions where I am expected to make sense out of the senseless. Unexpected deaths, sudden illness, suicide, murder, assault…I’ve grown older and hopefully wiser, and my spiritual life has certainly grown by leaps and bounds since we, as a community of young people, lost Dave. But I still don’t think there is anything that can be said to make it easier to deal with. So I won’t waste any one’s time by saying things like, “It’ll get better,” or “His memory will live on”. And I certainly won’t make statements like “God has a plan” or “Everything happens for a reason” because this isn’t God’s will. Violence and tragic death are never a part of God’s plan.
What I can tell you, though, is what I’ve learned now that I’ve lived through more than one tragedy.
First of all, God is weeping with you. Each one of us are God’s children and like any parent, the unexpected death or harm to one of those children is devastating. God does have big plans for each and every one of us, and when humanity’s sins interfere and rob someone of that chance to live into those big plans, God is just as sad and hurt as the rest of us.
Second, God’s will was not in the knife. The knife that stole Devante’s life was wielded by someone who had anger and violence in his heart–this is not God’s way. So please don’t look at the knife and think that God was somehow behind it. I’ve heard that Devante was stabbed when he attempted to break up a fight that was taking place. That sounds more like God’s will to me–to be a force of peace in the face of hatred.
Third, Devante’s legacy now rests in your hands. You are a community and you, though diverse, are still linked together through what you have shared together. Whether it was as a friend, a classmate, or a teammate–whether you were one of the people who served alongside him in his community service or were one of the people who benefitted from it–whether you were family, neighbor, or a passing acquaintance, you are in this together. Remember him for who he was, what was important to him, and what he wanted for this world– then make it happen. Let the goodness he brought into your life make your life better and share that with others. Let his legacy be one worthy of the love you have for him.
And finally, talk to God in the days ahead of you. If you need to yell at God, then yell. If you need to cry on God’s shoulder, then cry. If you need to sit in silence, that’s okay too, just make sure you let God sit there with you. Just make sure that you make room for God in your life. Don’t shut God out because you’re hurting, but let God hurt with you. Eventually those tears will begin to dry. Eventually, that large empty place in your heart is going to fill back up with a happiness Devante gave you. When that happens you are going to have some choices to make about what to do next. If your desire, as I hope it will be, is to make this a more just world, a world where good kids like Devante don’t have to die in senseless ways, then you will need God and God’s justice on your side.