Harvard students reflect on a week of marathon terror

By Luther Zeigler

Harvard seniors Ali Evans and Robert Tamai crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon just under the four-hour mark at approximately 2:49 p.m. last Monday. A minute later they heard a blast they would never forget. According to a report in the Harvard Gazette, Evans said: “when I saw the smoke rising and heard the initial screams, I turned to Robert and yelled, ‘Run, man, run!’” As the two students sprinted to safety, Evans says she shouted the Lord’s Prayer “at the top of my lungs, repeatedly.” Friends of Evans and Tamai, who were at the finish line to meet them, were ten yards from the first explosion. Amazingly, they were not injured.

The undergraduate President of our Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard, senior Graham Simpson, was at mile 25 near Fenway Park when the two bombs exploded. In a homily delivered this past Sunday evening, Graham described his experience of the chaos of that moment: “I had no idea what had happened until I started receiving texts from people asking me if I was okay and what was going on. It seemed impossible to believe at first, but we started walking back towards campus, deciding right away not to take public transportation. I was overwhelmed as I tried to sort out what was going on and what my friends and I should be doing . . . . Even once I crossed the river, the situation continued to overwhelm me. I was safe and so was everybody that I knew. But it was immediately clear that dozens, if not hundreds, were hurt and that at least two people were dead including an eight-year-old boy. My phone continued to buzz with texts asking me if I was all right and if I knew what was going on. I received so many texts that read simply, ‘Love you,’ words that had never felt more heart-felt and sincere. Sadness, relief, anger, sympathy, fear, and love all swept over me, in a cloud of contradictory emotions.”

Yet, as was to become clear the next day, the Harvard community was not spared by the tragedy. One of the victims to die in the blast was Krystle Campbell, a former Harvard Business School employee whose mother and brother still work at the University. On Wednesday afternoon, the business school community gathered to remember Krystle and the other victims. Led in prayer by my fellow Harvard chaplain, Fr. George Salzmann, hundreds were on hand at the Business School to express their support for the Campbell family and to lean on one another.

That same Wednesday, I worked with students and other Harvard chaplains to organize a candlelight vigil in Harvard Yard on the steps of Memorial Church. The Harvard Glee Club opened the service with song as dusk came over the Yard, illuminated only by the candles of the hundreds gathered. Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Humanist chaplains were all there, united in their commitment to peacemaking and in their stand against violence.

Harvard juniors Tara Raghuveer and Anqi Peng both spoke at the vigil. Peng, whose Boston Marathon race stopped just short of the finish line when the explosions hit, said that when she returned to campus all she wanted to do was find – and hug – every one of her friends. But Peng also commented on the incredible outpouring of selfless generosity she witnessed by police, bystanders and local businesspeople in the chaos at the finish line. As Harvard University President Drew Faust put it in her remarks that night, it is precisely these simple acts of human goodness that we should notice. Quoting the words of Toni Morrison, who recently spoke on campus, Faust reminded us: “We tend to overlook goodness, and we must put goodness in the center of our lives.”

Jonathan Walton, the new Pusey Minister of Memorial Church, offered a benediction to close the Wednesday evening vigil, in which he observed: “Anxiety is understandable and anger over senseless acts of terror is appropriate.” But, Walton entreated: “Don’t allow your anxiety or your anger to take your mind to an awful place. Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” Looking out at the flickering points of candlelight, Walton sent us out with the words: “As you blow out your candles tonight, let the light of God light you up.”

But then the violence returned the next night, as the two suspects emerged from the darkness in a violent outburst on nearby MIT’s campus, leaving one of its security officers dead and others badly injured. The older of the two brothers suspected of bombing the marathon also ended up dead in the streets. Then came the manhunt for the younger brother in neighboring Watertown, followed by the lockdown that kept us all confined in fear and anxiety until this young, nineteen year old boy was captured on Friday night.

As we learned more about the Tsarnaev brothers throughout the day on Friday, and their deep ties to the Cambridge community, it was no longer possible to dismiss them with mere labels like ‘Chechnyan terrorists’ or ‘radical Muslims’ as some in the media were inclined to do. For, truth be told, they were one of us, American kids from the neighborhood, our neighborhood. Here is how senior Graham Simpson put it in his homily:

“When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured Friday night, I felt relief. I hoped for some sort of justice. I was satisfied that our law enforcement had successfully pulled off their manhunt. But I felt very uneasy, confused and further saddened. How could a 19-year-old that lived within two blocks of one friend, had worked at a Harvard pool with another friend, and had played one-on-one basketball with a third committed such hateful acts? He seemed like such a normal American citizen. He had wrestled at his high school, won a scholarship, and liked to play FIFA. It doesn’t fit for me. I could feel no joy at Facebook statuses of ‘Got him’ or consider going out to the parties that had been rescheduled in celebration of his capture. I did not – and still do not – know how to react. An unclear muddle of thoughts fills my head.”

Meditating on one of the readings for this past Sunday, Psalm 23, Simpson concluded his homily by wondering aloud whether the Christian life may itself be a paradox that holds together both the inexplicable suffering of this life and the hope of new and fuller human relationship:

“I am trying to accept that it is okay to feel conflicted and confused at times like this. That is part of what makes us human. And it is in these moments that we can reach out to God and feel the Holy Spirit. The Lord is with us in green pastures and he leads us beside still waters. The Lord also walks us through the valley of the shadow of death with his rod and his staff. And sometimes we are not sure whether we are in the green pastures or the valley of death’s shadow. Maybe we can be in both places at the same time. We can experience the suffering of the cross and the hope of the resurrection. . . . The shepherd protects and guides us, but the shepherd also feels our pain and fear. And as Christ is in all of us, we must all feel each other’s pain and also protect one another. We look to the hope of a new day, but that does not mean that we cannot mourn and lament. Perhaps it is in the midst of this contradiction that we are called to live.”

The Reverend Luther Zeigler is the Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

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