David and Scarlett Lewis remember Jesse, Scarlett’s son and David’s grandson, who died in an attempt to save the life of a friend at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., December 14, 2012. Jesse was six years old.
Cathedral Age: Could you tell us about Jesse?
Ms. Lewis: Jesse was always larger than life. I remember being at the hospital and walking down to the nursery and seeing all the nurses from all over taking pictures of him—because he had actually crawled down from the bottom of his little bassinet, and nobody had ever seen a child crawl who was a day old. And that’s a fitting start for his life, because he was … or he is—I don’t use the past tense, because his presence, although not in physical form, is still very much with me—he is a force. I mean, he entered the room and there was energy that came with him, and you immediately became aware of him. People that met him once remembered him.
Cathedral Age: How has faith played a role in the aftermath of this tragedy for you?
Mr. Lewis: My daughter Scarlett, Jesse’s mother, has a great deal of faith. The faith that Jesse has moved to a different world is very important to her, and she’s felt the sense of Jesse’s spirit. She has tried to approach this tragedy by really turning her anger to love, forming what’s called the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation. And the basis of that is that we feel that the core problem in our society is not necessarily guns but that we have a great deal of anger in society.
You know, we can teach kids to go to the moon, but we can’t teach them how to get along with each other. And there’s something wrong with that. We’re planning what is really a pretty broad-based effort in response—and one that is faith-based, certainly: based in love.
So how do we teach kids they don’t have to go that way? I don’t think they know that, and, you know, I don’t think I knew that as a young person. We’re really missing something if we don’t tell our kids that they don’t have to choose anger: that there’s a better way to create inner peace, and it’s a better way to live your life.
Ms. Lewis: I believe that we are here for reasons and that if we’re living we have a purpose, and I believe that Jesse fulfilled his purpose being here even though it was for a shorter amount of time than I would have liked. I believe that part of that purpose in the tragedy was to create a global awareness that we need to move toward love.
Jesse left little messages for us, and one of them was written on my kitchen chalkboard. He wrote it some time shortly before he died, but I found it a couple weeks go. It said “Nurturing Healing Love.” All of these things kind of moved together to help found the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation. I was moved by that and by my own belief that love is the foundation of the human being. And, of course, “God is Love” (1 John 4:8)—and all these things came together.
[On the day of the shooting,] Jesse’s father was picking him up to take him to school, and I had sat down to kiss him goodbye when I saw that he had written “I love you” on the car window. And something within me told me, “Go in and get the camera, take the time.” I ran back with my camera and I placed him right by those words, and I actually took two pictures.
Faith is what has gotten me to this point. Faith got me out of bed every morning, just the knowledge that Jesse is in a better place. Valentine’s Day was the second-month anniversary of the shooting, and we’ve received such an outpouring of love that the families made valentine posters and gave them to neighboring towns, first responders, individuals, everyone—our state troopers, people who were with us, and also people at the firehouse that day when we got the news.
So each family brought a bunch of valentines to different places, and I was supposed to bring valentines to the state troopers. One of the mothers came with me to do that, and we went to the office—and the head sergeant or the head of the state troopers came out, and he said, “I was the one that went in and checked the children to see if they were alive. I was the first person in, and … I personally held each of your children.” And he said, “I want you to know: I don’t know what your faith is, but as I held those children they were whole and they were peaceful, just like they are now.” And I reached out and I touched his shoulder and I said, “I believe that, too.” That was very moving for me and very sweet, that a person of faith had held my child during that time and saw him as he is now.
Ann Wilson remembers her son Daniel and husband James, who died within five years of each other at the ages of 20 and 50, respectively, during a long period of elevated gun violence in the late eighties and early nineties in and around the nation’s capital.*
Cathedral Age: Can you tell us what happened with your son?
My son Danny was killed first, in a double homicide: him and a friend. He had been called by his friend to pick him up to give him a ride, and that was about 12 or 11:30, and within about 30 minutes I got the call that he had been shot. That was in Washington, D.C., and it was in the seventh police district—and actually in a neighborhood where I had grown up.
I wish I had words to say what the call was like. It came from a friend who actually, I guess, saw the shooting. The young people told me where it had happened, and of course I wanted to go there, but the police said that we should come to them instead, and they instructed us not to go to the scene; and of course, as a mother, I wanted to go—
I wanted to go and didn’t know if he was dead or alive.
Then I believe we went to the morgue to identify him, by a picture. That was the longest night ever. We came home around 3 am and we couldn’t even speak. There were no words to even say to each other, we were just so numb, and I felt like other people saw everything and we were excluded from that—to even be there when he took his last breath.
Danny was murdered in ’91, and from ’88 to about ’91 there was a lot of things going on, but I really didn’t think my son would be one of them. I did talk to him a lot about it, to be careful, and I remember him always saying, “A bullet doesn’t have a name on it, Ma.”
Cathedral Age: What happened to your husband?
It was pretty much a similar situation. Danny and James, my husband, were very outgoing, friendly people—and whenever asked a favor they would usually try to comply. My husband had a charter boat that he ran on the Anacostia River, and he loved to take people out on it.
There was an event they had that night on the boat, and after that event one of the other captains on the boat had asked him to give two young people from the boat a ride home. So he gave them a ride home—and when he got to the last person’s drop-off, he was ambushed. He was shot 14 times, in the car, and the detectives said it was a case of a mistaken identity.
Cathedral Age: How have you gotten through this, Ann? What has helped you personally to cope with such unimaginable loss?
It started, actually, at Covenant [Baptist Church]. I grew up—and I raised my children—in the neighborhood where Covenant is, and so from time to time we might visit that church. I knew about Covenant, and I knew of its work in the community, and I was drawn to them to ask if I could have Danny’s funeral there. Both of their funerals were held there. I’ve been there almost 20 years, maybe a little more than 20 years, and a lot of it stems from the murders and coming back to a place that I was familiar with.
I just knew it was out of my hands! So I had to turn to God. And I did go through some very trying times. I was already prone to anxiety because my mother had it, but then after the murders I had post-traumatic stress, which was awful: I couldn’t drive, I didn’t want to go out of the house, I didn’t want to be around people. And I was concerned about my other children: James, Jr., Yolanda, and Veronica.
There’s medication—but God’s arms are also wrapped around me daily. God has just been so faithful to always let me know he’s in control; that it’s not my battle, but it’s his. And as frustrating as the police department had been with us, I had to let that go.
Cathedral Age: Were your husband or son people of faith?
You know, my husband was always supportive of us going to church although he didn’t really go. He believed in a higher being, and we did talk about that, although I never fully knew what that meant for him. With my son it was interesting … because the night he was killed, actually, I had gone to the store to get his favorite meal—I don’t know what drew me to do that—and when we sat down to eat dinner he was talking about God. It was just so profound for me: that connection at that very moment. And then two hours later he was gone.
Cathedral Age: What is your opinion on the gun debate?
When I look back at all the young people who died from ’88 to about ’94 when all that was going on—I think they were calling D.C. the crime capital of the nation—I think about the kind of guns that people had and the ability to get it without an ID or however that works. I mean it just seems like people have such easy access to the weapons, that … it’s frightening. It’s frightening to know that nothing’s been done up till now—but if they could do something now, it would stop it in its tracks. Even living alone I still wouldn’t get a gun. I wouldn’t have a gun in my home for the mistakes that you could make with it and the type of weapons that young people have that can rattle off 10, 12 shots one after the other. I just think it’s too easy for people to get guns, and I would be one who would be supportive of getting rid of them. You know the fight between the NRA and the government and everybody else? That feels like it’s a no-win situation, but I feel there ought to be a ban for access to guns.
Cathedral Age: What do you think people of faith should be doing to help prevent more tragedies?
Faith communities have a huge role. I know we have to be present at whatever hearings that are being held, whatever marches are being held, whatever organizing is happening in the community—because it’s happening in our community, and I don’t expect change to happen outside the community. I expect people in the community to pull together; and if there’s a nationwide legislation that happens, it’ll be because the community—and the faith community—came together.
We can’t talk about faith and Christ just inside the walls of the church. We have to go outside: the work is outside the walls of the church. And so wherever there’s organization within the community, we have to be there.
You know, there’s a church on every corner—in some places, three in a block—so the churches make up a huge number of people that could be representative at a march. And you know that in the past, with some of the marches in the civil rights movement, they were heavily faith-based organizing efforts—and I think we have to get back to that. Because that’s where the change comes from: it comes from the people. It comes from the people.
Tom Sullivan remembers his son Alex, who was killed July 20, 2012, at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. He was celebrating his twenty-seventh birthday and would have celebrated his first wedding anniversary just two days later.
Cathedral Age: Can you tell us about your son Alex?
Well, he was a young man who was just kind of starting out. He was very outgoing—had that Irish gift of gab, where he could talk to anybody—and he had great empathy and compassion toward others. Sometimes you could just sit next to him, and he could tell if you were having a good day or a bad day, and he could reach in and try to make your day a little bit better. Alex could hear what you had to say. He was a great guy … and I’m so proud of him. He was working hard and was set to achieve things, and he just got taken from us way too early.
Cathedral Age: How has faith played a role in your grieving process as a family?
Just a year before, Alex had decided to be confirmed. He grew up as a Catholic, and we’d had him baptized but never confirmed, and as he got older it came to him as something that he wanted to do. Of course Alex was always busy with work and different things, but his mom would always meet up with him at church on Sundays. It was a special time that they could share each week. Now we’ve started going back on a more regular basis.
I never thought of my faith as being all that strong, but people have commented on the strength that they’ve seen come from my wife and me through all of this, and they attribute it to a faith that we have inside of us. I believe that’s how we were able to begin early on, and I mean very early on, the celebration of Alex’s life.
As I’ve told everybody, we have people praying for us … and I have to tell them that, somehow, those thoughts and prayers come to us. And I think that helps us to have this inner strength that we have so that we’re able to move forward a little bit. I always tell people we’re moving forward—but not forgetting. No one’s forgetting anything. But we are moving forward. The thoughts and prayers that people continue to send our way? We catch those, those come to us somehow, and that gives us the strength that we need. We appreciate all of the thoughts and prayers. Keep ’em coming.
Cathedral Age: How have you chosen to remember and honor Alex?
Alex is everywhere. Alex is in our hearts, every day, and I can come home and see him and feel him within the house. Aurora is where he grew up. I’ve worked in Aurora all this time, too. And so when the community said that they wanted the theater to be reopened—that it was a part of the community—then we agreed that that was what we should do. What’s happened is much bigger than just me, and bigger than any one person, because there’s a whole community here. We’re all working through it a day at a time.
If I can help people through the difficult times, or try to, I want to do that. There are still people out there who have severe injuries from what’s happened: there are people who lost fingers, who have lost legs; there are 20-year-old kids who are walking around with canes and will have a limp or have to use some kind of device to get around for the rest of their lives. Those people are the people I try to reach out to and try to help through this, and I also want to make other people aware of how these people were affected.
Cathedral Age: How was the experience of going to the reopening of the movie theater?
It was kind of empowering, overall, because it helped us deal with what had happened there: there was a 900-pound gorilla sitting in the movie theater, you might say, and we didn’t know how to see past it or how to move it out of there. But when we got to go there that night, and heard the speeches that were made, and saw those other people who had been seated there that night—you know, the gorilla walked out of the theater.
We realized we were probably the only people wh