“My city, this cradle of liberty, sways with compassion tonight.”
Thus my poet friend described the response to the Boston attacks. A dazed city sways with compassion. Even as trauma tore the fabric of our certainty, tragedy united Boston in sympathy and concern. It also brought religion down to earth, where it worked to heal bodies and souls.
Boston-area houses of worship opened their doors for prayer services. Candlelight vigils were held in parks and on church steps. People prayed alone or in small groups, on sidewalks and in train cars. Towns, religious communities and colleges offered spiritual and material support to victims.
The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center assembled dozens of volunteers ready to help with relief efforts and donate blood. Temple Israel is directing people to counseling services. A city-wide interfaith prayer service is planned for Thursday at 11 a.m. at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
Boston can be a place of sharp divides. Parts of the historic city were literally built along lines of race, ethnicity, class and religion. But tragedies like this bridge gaps with compassion and understanding. As we continue to seek comfort, we may doubt and question God, and find for a time we must rely on one another for support.
Also running the marathon Monday, I crossed the finish line an hour before the blasts, and was fortunate enough to be a block away when the explosions went off. That evening I came home to a cell phone and Facebook feed filled with the anxious thoughts and prayers of my friends.
On Tuesday, Harvard Divinity School, where I’m a student, held a multi-faith religious service featuring Buddhist, Christian, Hindu prayer and meditation. Only there did I realize how poorly I am prepared to face the problem of evil.
To use a fancy academic phrase, the bombs shattered my “ontological security,” the sense of stability people require to make meaning of a life that would otherwise seem random and hopeless. But to name the problem is far easier than to deal with it.
Though his statement has nothing to do with God, I took comfort in the words of a Presbyterian Minister:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Fred Rogers was a living example of such compassion on and off the television screen. We have seen the same on the streets of Boston.
And so when we turn to religion in this troubled time, we should not ask, “where is God?” but, “how can I help?”
Compassion is bandaging up a leg and lending a shoulder to cry on. It is driving one runner home and giving another money for a meal and a train ticket. These are the stories I have heard in the wake of the explosions.
Compassion is one of the greatest resources religions can offer Boston right now. Vigils show not only sympathy, but solidarity across religious lines.
And so we pray for the dead, the injured, the loved ones; the responders and all who offer care and protection; we even pray for the perpetrators of the violence.
When politics and law come to dominate the story of the Boston Marathon tragedy, we must remember compassion and the comfort we found in one another Monday afternoon.
This year marked my first running of the Boston Marathon, and throughout the race I was amazed by volunteers’ kindness and spectators’ enthusiasm. Roughly 27,000 athletes put in millions of miles of training, but the race could not have happened without the support of thousands of helpers. Every cup of Gatorade poured for racers, every cheer, every clap contributed to a marvel of collective human achievement.
The physical and psychic wounds are most visible here in Boston, but the pain radiates outward with every runner’s return home. The grief extends even to those who knew not a single runner, who have never set foot in New England and who have never run a race.
Religion can help to heal these wounds. We are brought together by trust in a higher being, or deeper meaning, or the promise of paradise. Even lacking this, we come together as humans inhabiting the same space, extending warmth and compassion to one another.