I had just sat down by the Christmas tree at my grandmother’s house, when I saw the first Tweet about the Bronx fire of a couple weeks ago: a multi-story apartment building in the Belmont section of the Bronx near the zoo up in flames. I gulped. I dreaded that it might be my home or the home of one of the students I teach at the local parish grade school. I breathed a sigh of relief to learn that my house and my students were safe and offered up a prayer for those affected.
It wasn’t until last Tuesday, at the interfaith prayer service at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church, that I really began to feel the suffering of the victims and their loved ones. It is a strange grace of this vocation to be invited into the suffering of seeming strangers. I hesitate to call them strangers because acquaintance with grief quickly overcomes any other lack of acquaintance.
That is not to say that the prayer service wasn’t awkward, in its own way. A loose script, apparent differences among the religions represented, extended off-the-cuff remarks by grieving family members all lent an unpredictable and impromptu atmosphere to the event. But there was a tangible compassion in the air. If one and all did not share the same feeling of sadness as deeply as the victims’ families, everyone at least had the desire to feel that compassion.
The most striking part of the prayer service was not the words spoken by the different faith and community leaders. In situations like this, words are necessary but not sufficient. While a father’s words about the death of his 8-month old child in the blaze moved many to tears, even these words could not bring the healing comfort needed. The most tangible healing, rather, happened during the singing. There were songs sung by the choir and all joined in singing the “Prayer of St. Francis” and “Let there be Peace on Earth,” but the songs sung by the families had the greatest impact.
Some of the victims of the fire were Jamaican, and when the surviving victims and their families first returned to the site they were moved to sing a traditional Gospel hymn “Around God’s Throne.” During the service, the pastor asked if they wanted to sing again and they broke into a haunting rendition:
I went to the house, where I use to live.
The grass has grown up and it covered the door.
Someone across the street,
Said I know whom you seek,
But they, they don’t live here anymore.
They are somewhere around the throne of God,
Somewhere around the throne of God…
The powerful wailing moved all of us in attendance, but the healing power and true beauty of the moment was that they did not sing for us. They sang for God and for themselves. They broke into song because that was the most natural response in the moment of returning to the scene of their loss and in this moment of prayer. They held each other and sang together because singing made more sense than speaking or remaining silent.
Their spontaneous outpouring of emotion sparked the Ghanaian community, who had also lost loved ones, to sing a traditional song in their own tongue. Again they were not singing for the hundreds gathered there to show support. We who had come to share in their mourning played our part by listening and being moved, but they would have sung for no one but themselves if we were not there.
Reflecting later on the power of the singing to heal and to draw folks together, I asked myself what songs I might sing with my loved ones if we experienced a similar loss. What if it had been my house that was destroyed or my students who had lost their lives? The sad strains of “Danny Boy” and “The Parting Glass” drifted through my mind. I had a hard time imagining these songs flowing out of me as naturally as they seemed to from those mourners in church, but I hope that if I am ever in their shoes, I can stand among a community that cares and sing my own song of healing.