I’ve heard that it takes about six years before you begin to heal from the loss of a loved one, before you’re really in a healthy place of peace and acceptance.
I was walking to class nine years ago on the morning of April 16, 2007, when a Virginia Tech student was at that moment killing 32 students and teachers while injuring 17 more. I didn’t know him, and I didn’t know anyone personally that died, yet the event was traumatic for my young self. I noticed a few years ago that the six-year mark was accurate — it was a turning point in which I noticed that the scarring event felt, for the first time, distinctly in the past and was no longer a constant presence in the room with me like it had been for so long.
I now direct DeSales Service Works in North Camden, where we connect young adult volunteers with life-giving ministries in the city. I’ve realized two things since moving here almost six years ago: healing is a luxury (albeit a right), and the support of a compassionate community has a lot of power and value to those who suffer and seek healing.
It wasn’t until I came to DSW in Camden that I realized how much of a luxury my healing process at Virginia Tech was. To fill you in on the dynamics of campus life at Tech the weeks following April 16: 25,000 students and staff waited to hear from loved ones. We were in shock, unbelieving, incredulous, in mourning, and barraged by media from across the world. We didn’t have class for a week, and the remaining three weeks of class were optional. In short: it felt like time stopped. We had space to grieve and be in pain without distraction. I mourned together with my Catholic Campus Ministry friends, and with the larger student body. And the world sent us incredible support — more than I could possibly tell you about.
Camden, and I imagine much of the rest of the world that experiences violence, has a much different relationship with healing. Camden has one of the highest murder rates per capita in the country, and too often the street-tough mentality takes over, not allowing people to grieve and heal fully. Many young people here know friends or relatives who have been killed, and time doesn’t stop for them like it did for us on campus. They don’t have the support of thousands of people or the world to mourn with them. Their pain and loss is often overlooked, downplayed because of its crushing commonality. Violence is normalized — accepting something so tragic and seemingly unstoppable becomes an understandable defense mechanism. There are far too many makeshift memorials of bottles and teddy bears in our neighborhoods, yet violence continues.
This is the environment DeSales Service Works, through the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales, have chosen to step into. To see pain and suffering, and to choose to be present instead of running away, is the definition of compassion. Suffering can’t be erased or forgotten, but its grasp can be diminished through the compassionate presence of others. As de Sales says in my favorite prayer of his, “God will either shield us from suffering or give us unfailing strength to bear it.”
That strength that comes from, I believe, compassionate community that fosters healing. It’s this ministry, this tangible and concrete result brought about by compassionate community, that DSW and many other ministries offer in Camden.
We invite young adults to join our ministry for a Service Year: directing their passions and talents toward serving the poor and marginalized for one year while living together simply in faith, community, and solidarity. To learn more, please go to desalesservice.org.
Mike Morgan is director of operations, DeSales Service Works.