A terrible day became a wonderful opportunity for ministry…
Monday was an awful day. I don’t know how else to say it. It began as a very usual day at our ministry center. Our chief of program, Peggy Nienaber, started our normal Monday morning staff briefing. Then we welcomed our newest staff member, Kaitlynn Hendricks, and I began what was to be a routine orientation for her. In the background, Patty Bills, who manages our supporter relations work, prepared for a visit of a home school group.
Suddenly, “all hell” literally broke out. The news started pouring in: A shooter was at large, several “down” at the Navy Yard just five minutes away. “Lock all doors! Monitor the security cameras!” Sirens blared. Gunfire could be heard by people in the House Rayburn Building where members of Congress have their offices. Everywhere, heavily armed officers with machine guns and body armor. “Walk fast.” “Let’s get underground.” “Get inside.”
We were in lock-down. What could I do? Watch it on TV. Then Peggy spied it: My apartment building in one of the camera shots.
“Isn’t that your building, Rob?” she asked.
Yup. There it was. My building. My neighborhood. My Metro subway stop. I buy my pizzas from the Domino’s across the street from where the horror broke out. I ride my bike down the path that leads to the Navy Yard. I sit and drink my Starbucks on sidewalk tables and often gaze at the castle-like entry to the naval installation. It took a minute for it to sink in: This tragedy was playing out in my neighborhood!
I called my wife, Cheryl, who was seeing clients 40 miles away at her counseling practice.
“Don’t come home until I’ve texted you to say it’s safe. Stay away. A shooter may be at large in our neighborhood.”
Then I received a phone call: At least 13 were dead inside the Navy Yard complex. The area was cordoned off: No entry, no exit.
That created a big decision for me. I was scheduled on an afternoon flight to Columbia, Missouri, for a critically important meeting. Do I go or stay? I’m needed equally in both places. The decision seemed to be made for me when planes were grounded at Reagan National Airport out of fear the shooter may try to board one—or worse—shoot one down. I called Cheryl again.
“I’m 40 miles away,” she said. “I’ll just stay here. You go.” So, I headed to the airport. The ground stop had lifted. Flights were taking off.
At the boarding gate I couldn’t shake the feeling: I belonged in my mission field. I was needed more at home—in Washington, DC. My heart turned to the dead and injured; to their loved ones who were grieving and traumatized. I serve on the US Senate Chaplain’s Emergency Response Team. I prayed, and then made some calls about the Missouri meeting. The message: “Stay where you are and do what God tells you to do.” I walked away from the flight. It was expensive (non-refundable tickets), but it was the right thing to do.
I grabbed a cab and told the driver to take me to my home. “Oh, that’ll be a problem,” he said. “All closed down. Nothing moving in or out of there.” I told him to get me as close as possible and I would walk the rest of the way. “You did the right thing,” the cab driver said of my change in travel plans. “Nothing more important than what God says, what your family needs, and what you can do for your neighbors. These are the most important things.” Then he promised to get me, “Right to your front door. I will get you there, Sir. No matter what.” And he did.
Rev. Rob Schenck speaks to reporters near the site of a mass shooting that resulted in 12 deaths and 8 injuries.
After checking on the security at our apartment building, I grabbed my Bible and my prayer stole and headed toward the Navy Yard. I would offer my services as a chaplain. I’ve done it many times before, most memorably on 9/11 at the Pentagon and Ground Zero, and before that at the Capitol on the day two officers were shot dead by a crazed assailant. I know the power of a pastoral presence, and the profound effect of prayer in moments of crisis. The injured had been transported to hospitals, the bodies had been removed, and the site was secured as a crime scene and inaccessible. I did the only thing I knew to do—and the only thing I could do: I prayed. Kneeling on the sidewalk, I read Psalms of lamentation, then I prayed for the families of those mourning loved ones, the victims in surgery and those recovering, and for the witnesses who were traumatized. A reporter nearby wept. I journalist holding a microphone in front of me wiped his eyes. A radio personality from Norway asked me, “Why do Americans pray at times like this?”
What had begun as a horrible tragedy became a wonderful opportunity to show the love of God, to turn attention to our only true source of help in times of desperation, and to point hearts and minds to the only Savior of humankind. I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
These are the moments I treasure most. Bringing a prayerful witness into the bleak landscape of human hopelessness. This is what we do as your missionary team on Capitol Hill, and I am so honored by your prayerful support that enables us to do it. I am so very, very grateful to the Lord for your kindness to us. It is a privilege to be an extension of your heart and hands for God.
Your brother and servant in Christ,