My 8-year-old handed me my phone, eyes questioning. A text from my husband had just dinged in: There was a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch.
The first thing my son wanted to know was how far we were from the shots.
Our family moved to Hamilton, New Zealand, from Florida two years ago, jumping at a chance to live abroad with our three boys before our oldest graduated from high school. Moving to a new country is never easy, but I can’t imagine a more welcoming place than New Zealand. We’ve been pulled into friendships and community. And, I admit, I’ve been grateful to provide the kids with a buffer from a relentless U.S. news cycle of school shootings and political division. But now the violence was here, too.
By the next morning, specifics of the attacks had emerged — a 28-year-old alleged white supremacist shooter from Australia. A lengthy manifesto and live stream of massacre. Fifty dead.
A childhood so different from my own
We used simple terms to discuss the shootings with our youngest, then talked about the details with our older boys, 15 and 12. We told them that my husband and I were planning to attend a vigil for the victims that night at a park outside our city’s mosque. Our family had attended one other vigil together in Florida before our move, after our dear friend’s synagogue was defaced. But this one, following incomprehensible violence, felt different. We invited the boys to join us, then gave them space to make their own decision.
Before long, our oldest came to find me. My boy, almost a man, was struggling to understand a world so different than the one I’d grown up in.
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He wanted to attend the vigil, but he’d seen on social media that two people had made threats against our local mosque. People were worried that our city was next. He wanted to know if the vigil would be safe.
I paused, my first instinct to tell him not to worry. Social media makes it easy for powerless people to throw threats into the world. But he deserved a truer answer than that.
I told him that I didn’t think we would be at risk, but yes, there were people who wanted violence to continue. So I could never tell him that we would be entirely safe. But if fear was what would keep us away, then we needed to think carefully about that. Because while fear can give us important information, it can also paralyze us. And people who seek to divide want us to be afraid.
Love is the only defense against fear
Fear hijacks our brains so that the first thing we do is look for evidence of distance, as if distance could keep us safe. Fear whispers to us, “I not am in Charleston, at Oak Creek, at the Tree of Life, in Parkland, in Christchurch. I am not black, a Sikh, a Jew, a student in Florida anymore, a Muslim. And so I am safe.”
Until safety is nowhere. Because when we let fear push us to turn our backs on our neighbors, we allow evil to creep in and surround us on all sides.
But there is a force stronger than evil, I said to my son. Love can enter into our fear and show us how to overcome it. Love was telling me that it was important that we, as white Christians, show up on the side of people being targeted, especially when we could easily turn away.
I told my son that my husband and I were always going to try and go where we felt love calling us, even if we felt scared, and even if it put us at risk. We can live lives of courage because we believe love is with us even in fear, and with us in pain, and on the other side of death. There is nowhere we can go where love is not.
Our boys decided to join us that night, and we all felt heartened when we parked and saw people streaming toward the mosque from every direction. Perhaps sometimes you have to show up to understand the power and relief that comes from joining with others to stand for a different way.
My oldest pulled out his phone to take a photo of the gathering crowd, then began to compose his own social media post. As I leaned close to remind him to be respectful of the community in mourning, my words caught in my throat when I saw what he was writing:
“Here to stand against the hideous hate shown on Friday. Here to stand with the brothers and sisters whose lives were stolen. Our hearts go out to Christchurch.”
His own flickering flame in the darkness.
And so here we stand, remembering that humanity’s best stories are never risk free — they’re the ones where we overcome suffering and evil, together. We’ve decided to enter into that good story, and invite our children into it, too.
Amy Olrick is an author and senior associate at the U.S.-based Revolutionary Love Project. After the shooting, the organization launched an online portal through Auburn’s Groundswell, to deliver words of love and solidarity to New Zealand’s Muslims.