A Response to the WDBJ Shootings: From the Commercial Appeal

August 30, 2015

The Reverend Sandy Webb and Minister of Communication Cara Modisett, who both have ties to Roanoke, Va., wrote a response to the WDBJ shootings of Wednesday, August 26. It was published in the Commercial Appeal Saturday, August 29. Following is the text:

One Violent Act Can't Define a City

Neither of us were Roanoke natives. One of us was from 100 miles north, the other 700 miles. But we lived in Roanoke long enough to love it, and the mountains that define life there.

For that reason, Wednesday's shooting at Smith Mountain Lake, broadcast on live television, hit home in a profound and heartbreaking way.

WDBJ was one of our local television stations. Smith Mountain Lake was a familiar weekend getaway and retirement destination. The background of every picture on the news this week was of a place we knew well. In so many ways, these images took us back to our adoptive home, but in a way that we barely recognized it.

Our Roanoke is not defined by violence and victims, but by neighbors and community, the sort of place where you never meet a stranger, wherever you go.

In Roanoke, our roles were different. Sandy, an Episcopal priest and fire department chaplain, sought to walk with people on the journey of life. Cara, a journalist and musician, captured the spirit of that life in word and sound.

Roanoke's media are a community; they know each other. The journalist between us had worked with Bryce Williams, or Vester Lee Flanagan, on two stories — one, about local response to Hurricane Sandy — the other, to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

He did not present as an angry or bitter man — he was green and inexperienced, and excited about covering good news stories from a little church in Roanoke.

When Cara contacted Bryce a few months later about another story, he told her he was no longer at WDBJ. He wrote, "Unfortunate things sometimes happen in life. One can either give up or keep moving forward. This too shall pass."

It did not pass. We cannot understand what happened before or after or why, but the awful, awful result was that Bryce Williams killed two young, beloved people who had full lives in front of them, injured a third, and then killed himself.

Memphis knows well that the character of a city is not defined by the unspeakable actions of violent people. Roanoke is not Bryce Williams any more than Memphis is Tremaine Wilbourn. Hatred and violence describe neither the Star City that was our home, nor the Bluff City that now is. We are Memphians and we are Roanokers, our hearts in two places at once this week.

Community violence should always trouble us as people of faith. As a society, we have erected barriers between ourselves that give us permission to objectify people who look, think or act differently than we do. We have created a society in which we have permission to exact revenge on those who offend us, in which guns continue to be too quickly available, in which violence is becoming normal, an everyday tragedy, a set of statistics.

We wish we could turn our eyes away from the events we saw play out on our television screens on Wednesday. We would rather not acknowledge a reality we feel powerless to address. But naming the truth of violence and hatred is the first step in reclaiming our power over it. The next step is working toward reconciling our communities — by being in relationship with people who are different from we are, who suffer from mental illness, whose voices have been ignored or silenced.

When communities are strong and people are connected, we leave no room for senseless acts of violence.

Our character will not be defined by the violent actions of a few, but by the faithful and loving response of the many.

The Reverend Sandy Webb is rector of Church of the Holy Communion (Episcopal). Cara Ellen Modisett is the church's minister of communication.

« Back