I tuned in last Wednesday night as part of a national audience joining those gathered in the University of Arizona’s McKale Center to mourn the senseless loss of life in a Tucson, Ariz., shopping center just four days earlier. I’m no stranger to such memorial services.
I watched last year as our president spoke for all of us at a service in West Virginia for fallen miners. I attended the memorial service in Oklahoma City, where my father, Billy Graham, and President Clinton spoke after the unbelievable wreckage at the hands of Timothy McVeigh. I also watched my father address the nation from the National Cathedral in Washington, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Al Gore and I were asked by then-Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado to bring a message at a memorial service for victims of the shooting rampage at Columbine High School. A common thread ran through all of these services and runs through thousands of memorial services across this country each year - a call to Almighty God for healing and a request for Him to wrap His loving arms around us at our point of grief.
The University of Arizona service - seeking to show support for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 12 other wounded citizens, while remembering federal Judge John Roll, Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwin Stoddard, Gabe Zimmerman and 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green - was different from any other I’ve ever seen. To be fair, this was not President Obama’s fault; indeed, I was proud of Mr. Obama as he spoke from a heart obviously grieving at the inexplicable violent shooting spree just days earlier. He had shown the same heart and spirit last year as the state of West Virginia grieved over the loss of their own who never returned from the mines.
I may not have voted for him, and may disagree with him on various policy issues, but last Wednesday night in Tucson, Mr. Obama was my president. I’m less proud, if not embarrassed, by what else took place in the McKale Center. I was disappointed by an audience that often sounded and acted as if it was at a political rally. One Tucson resident who spent eight hours waiting to get into the service commented, “Some of the crowd needed to act a little more mellow; it wasn’t a basketball game.”
It now seems as if the president may have walked into a rally without realizing (or wanting) it. It turns out the university had printed T-shirts with the campaign-like logo, “Together We Thrive: Tucson and America.” Every one of the thousands entering the service found a T-shirt draped over the back of their chairs. Anyone expecting or wanting to see a somber service of prayer for comfort and hope for those struggling to come to grips with family members lost or fighting for their lives instead found something more resembling a boisterous pep rally that might have preceded an Arizona Wildcats championship game. But this was not the most disturbing sight to me.
Carlos Gonzales, a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, was introduced to offer a blessing amidst loud cheering, at which time he introduced himself as “not a medicine man - just a family doc.” What followed, an 8 1/2-minute self-tribute, more resembled an Academy Award acceptance speech than a prayer or a blessing.
Mr. Gonzales blessed the “eastern door, from where we get visions and guidance,” the “southern door, where we get the energies of the family,” the “western door, where we honor the sacred ways and sacred ancestors,” and the “northern door, where we receive challenges and the strength to meet those challenges.” Rather than calling on the God of heaven who made us and created this universe, which He holds in the palm of His hand, the university professor called out to “Father Sky, where we get our masculine energy” and “Mother Earth, where we get our feminine energy.”
How sad. Father Sky and Mother Earth can do nothing to comfort Capt. Mark Kelly, who had been at the bedside of his wife, Rep. Giffords, wondering if she’d ever leave her bed. Or Mavy Stoddard, who was only alive because her husband sacrificed his life by shielding her with his body. Or the family, classmates, teammates and friends of little Christina, whose life was snuffed out before she could play another season of Little League.
For the sake of these innocent people and for Americans everywhere, I wish someone could have prayed to the One who created all of us, Almighty God. The president quoted from the great textbook of grief, the Old Testament book of Job - always fitting words in times like these. Perhaps the Yaqui tribe representative, the president of the university - someone - could have echoed the words of the Psalmist: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
What a shame that the University of Arizona didn’t have enough sensitivity to suffering families and a watching nation to invoke the name of the God who is “Father to the fatherless and protector of widows.” In fact, any of the 150 chapters of Psalms picked at random would have offered more comfort than the mystical rambling delivered from the stage. My question: Why were the clergy of Tucson - the men of God - excluded?
So to our president I say, thank you. Thank you for using the power of your office and the sincerity of your heart to console those whose suffering is unimaginable. To those in Arizona who are trying to make sense of the senseless, I say: Know that millions of people are praying for you. Better still, know that they’re praying to the God of heaven, who hears and cares, and not to the northern door or Father Sky, who sees not, hears not and knows not. I pray God will heal our land, bring peace and civility to every heart, and forgive our sins - especially when we exclude Him from daily life. Amen.
Franklin Graham is the president and chief executive officer of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse.