by Fr. Joe Nassal, C.PP.S.
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
-TS Eliot, The Wasteland
April 2020 has certainly been a cruel month with the devastation and death spread by Covid-19 and the loss of thousands of lives and millions of jobs. The cancellation of spring sports rituals like the beginning of the baseball season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs has robbed us of a great diversion from the stress and anxiety many feel. Yes, it’s been a cruel month on many levels. Perhaps lost in the overwhelming focus on the coronavirus, the heroic witness of so many serving on the front lines in hospitals caring for the sick and in so many other service areas, the importance of washing hands, physical distancing and shelter in place, are three anniversaries this past week that had a significant influence on the evolution of our social consciousness and corporate stances as a province.
The Kansas City Province has corporate stances that reflect directly on the first two anniversaries—the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the 21st anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine in Littleton, CO; and the third significant anniversary, the 50th annual celebration of Earth Day on April 22, will be an important focus of the United States Province of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. Utilizing Laudate Si as a template, the protection of the earth, climate change, and the stewardship of the earth’s resources are priorities for all people of faith but especially one that has deep roots in rural and farming communities and whose spirituality shouts a new creation in water and blood that flows from the side of the crucified Christ.
The 21st anniversary of Columbine on April 20 calls forth our continuing efforts to end the slaughter of gun violence as we have committed ourselves to do in our corporate stance. But in this reflection, the focus is on the 25th anniversary of the bombing in Oklahoma City and how one man who lost a daughter to violence was transformed by the memory of his daughter’s commitment and meeting the father of the one who planned and perpetrated the bombing to become one of the world’s outspoken opponents of capital punishment.
The bombing in Oklahoma City is one of those terrifying and tragic events in our lives that we remember where we were when we first heard the news. On April 19, 1995, we were gathered in Assembly at St. James Church in Liberty and were just coming out of the auditorium after electing Mark Miller provincial.
On that same morning, Bud Welch was waiting for a call from his daughter Julie. They always went to lunch on Wednesdays at a restaurant across the street from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He never received that call for just after 9:00 AM, there was an explosion and 168 people, including Julie, were killed. But for two days after the bombing, Bud Welch did not know if his daughter who worked as a translator, was dead or alive. “From the moment I learned it was a bomb—a premeditated act of murder,” Bud said in an interview, “I survived on hate.”
But a couple of months after the bombing, he was watching an update on the investigation on television. “I was fuming at the delays,” he said, “when the screen showed a stocky, gray-haired man stooped over a flower bed.” It was Timothy McVeigh’s father, Bill. “It was only a glimpse of his face,” Bud said, “but in that instant, I saw a depth of pain like—like mine. Oh, dear God, I thought, this man lost a child too.”
That glimpse of a face gave Bud Welch more than a measure of grace. He became involved in organizations of murder victims’ families who oppose capital punishment. He has dedicated his life to abolishing the death penalty in this country because his daughter, Julie, once told him that if she was ever a victim of a violent crime, he was not to seek the death penalty for her killer. So, Bud Welch honors his daughter’s memory by traveling the country and speaking out against capital punishment.
This year the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing was on Divine Mercy Sunday. As we trace the wounds on the body of Christ, those inflicted by violence seem to leave the most vicious scars. After seeing a glimpse of Bill McVeigh’s face on television, he went to meet him in December 1998 at his home in Buffalo. Bud Welch and Bill McVeigh walked and talked in Bill’s garden. “We were two blue-collar Joes,” Bud said, “trying to do right by our kids.” At one point, Bill asked Bud if he cried and Bud told him he didn’t have any problem crying for his loss. “I can’t cry, even though I have a lot to cry about,” Bill told Bud. But as they sat at the kitchen table looking at family pictures like Tim’s graduation picture, a tear rolled down Bill’s face. “It was the love of a father for a son,” Bud told an interviewer.
When Bud got ready to leave, he doesn’t recall which one started crying first. But he does remember walking away from the house and realizing that “until that moment, I had walked alone, but now a tremendous weight had lifted from my shoulders. I found someone who was a bigger victim of the Oklahoma bombing than I was because I speak in front of thousands of people and say wonderful things about Julie, but if Bill McVeigh meets a stranger, he probably doesn’t even say he had a son.”
If you have seen Bud Welch or heard him speak, you see fire in his eyes. But hate and vengeance do not spark this fire; love does. It is the love of a father for his daughter, a love that knows unspeakable grief. He has taken his anger and rage and transformed it into grace and grief. In Faces of the Enemy: Reflections on the Hostile Imagination, Sam Keen writes, “For a time, purging our rage on a scapegoat relieves us of the feeling. But the need for the cleansing of the unacceptable feeling build up, and we must plunge into a new circle of violence.”
We all carry scars, both inside and outside. Anniversaries like the bombing in Oklahoma City and the Columbine shooting this week, cause us to touch the scars and remember the moment when the wound occurred. The scars survive but what we do with those scars makes all the difference. The challenge of our ministry of reconciliation continues to be to replace the cycle of violence with a circle of truth, of healing, of hope.
This is what Bud Welch has done. Sam Keen describes this process when he writes, “The only way out of the blind ritual of war is by learning to substitute grief for anger. Those who mourn the childhood love they never had, who treat their wounds tenderly, learn to forgive and to break the vicious cycle of the wounded and the wounding.”
Though many states have abolished the death penalty because of its cruel nature that taps our worst instincts for revenge, if anyone was the poster child for those who support capital punishment, it would be Timothy McVeigh. His act of premeditated murder caused the death of 168 people, including many children at a daycare center in the federal building. McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001.
But one of those who lost his daughter in the bombing, Bud Welch, fought for years to stop McVeigh’s execution because when Bud saw Bill McVeigh’s face as he worked in his garden, he did not see the face of an enemy but another father grieving the loss of his son.
ACTION: Missouri is one of the states that still has the death penalty and is the only state in the nation that has not granted a stay of execution during the pandemic. Walter “Arkie” Barton is scheduled to be executed on May 19. To find out more about Mr. Barton’s case, go to Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, madpmo.org. You can call Governor Parson (573) 751-3222 to ask him to stop the execution of Mr. Barton.