Faith over fear: Finding God's peace when tragedy hits home

People light candles during a memorial vigil for victims of the Oxford High School shooting at St. Joseph Parish in Lake Orion on Dec. 5. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“Fear is such a powerful emotion, that if we allow it to control us, it drives compassion out of our hearts.” – St. Thomas Aquinas.

I’m acquainted with fear. I’m a parent. I also spent 24 years as a police officer. I recall nights lying awake in bed, trying to predict when one of the catastrophes I’d encountered on the job was going to befall my family, convinced that every siren I heard was for a family member or friend. It took me years to shake this. Then I realized I could either let the fear control me or embrace the courage to see the light amidst it.

Recently, we were all impacted by the news of yet another tragic school shooting. It was the worst one in Michigan's history, and it hit close to home for all of us. Days later, several “copycat” threats stirred our fears further, causing schools to close their doors out of an abundance of caution. Now, as we attempt to make sense of all of this, I’m brought again to conversations I had with my wife during my career. More than once, I came home to discuss the horrific evils that humans perpetrated on each other, and more than once her reaction was the same; a shake of the head and statement like, “I just don’t understand it.” I remember telling her what a wise priest once told me: “Of course you don’t, because you don’t think like that.”

I wonder if part of the problem might be that much of our culture has shown God the proverbial “door,” and our families have become so secularized, we no longer have room for God. Maybe if we refocus our attention on putting Christ not only back into Christmas, but in the center of our lives, or if, instead of that extra travel team, we spend more quiet time with our families, it would be easier for our kids to see the role models they need, rather than fall to the despair these times seem to foist on them.

The night after the shootings, my daughters asked me, “How does God expect people to believe in Him when these things keep happening?” I was taken aback. My wife and I had spent lots of money sending both daughters to Catholic schools. And yet they didn’t have all the answers. Who’d have thought, right?

I pondered how I might answer, recalling what a spiritual adviser once told me. Often, the questions we ask are more important than the answers we find. We can either ask why a good God would allow this, or we can look at the fact that many people lived because of the heroic acts of Tate Myre, the teachers and the first responders. Maybe God doesn’t live in the tragedy, but in them.

A few days after their initial question, my daughters both came back to me with a different perspective. They talked about the prayer service at St. Joseph Parish in Lake Orion and what they’d learned about the endless line of cars pulling into the lot. They talked about the droves of people who have started to take a closer look at their relationship with God.

Our hearts go out to each one of the victims’ families, to the Oxford community, and to the friends of those who lost their lives. It will lead to questions, no doubt. I just pray that those questions aren’t addressed solely to the very arbiters of fear whose shadows stifle our ability to live. Rather, I hope I they are asked to someone who can help show us that God is still with us.

We need to be cautious. We need to take concrete steps to ensure this never happens again. But we can never let caution turn into cowardice. Laws alone won’t endow families with sound moral foundation. We must each take it upon ourselves to do that. We can begin that quest within our Catholic school classrooms. Then maybe more of our kids will learn to temper their fear and realize that moral courage wins the day. And so will God.

Paul Stuligross is a retired police officer. He currently teaches theology at St. Mary’s Preparatory High School in Orchard Lake.


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