In France today, grieving also means calling up your courage.
On a Metro train in Paris, we met two young men who were on their way with some candles to light at the club Le Bataclan, one of the most gruesome sites of the terrorist attacks. Michael, who was from a town outside of the city, had come to join his younger brother Joseph who lived in Paris. The elder brother was wearing soccer clothing while his little brother was more dressed up.
They talked about how the Friday attacks came while the Charlie Hebdo killings were still fresh in their memories. But they felt that the attacks this time were different, more monumental for the French people. Many people, including themselves, had attended concerts at the Bataclan. And the brothers reflected that in the normal course of their lives they could have been at the soccer game or one of the restaurants. This Friday’s assault felt like a personal attack on them. They were fearful, but were determined to show their respect and solidarity with the victims. They asked us to go with them to the memorial at the club Bataclan.
Pastor Bill Devlin, another pastor from our church in New York City, my wife and two daughters joined them. After we arrived, we announced our support through a prayer amidst the hundred people or so around the memorial site at the club. We invited anyone to join us in prayer.
In Paris, public prayer doesn’t happen very much, yet people gathered around to join us. Unfortunately, a rather intolerant atheist interjected with violent yelling, "Religion is private, only private." We still prayed, and the crowd yelled at the atheist, clapped and embraced us with hugs and tears. The Parisians that gathered around us made a point of explaining loudly that they wanted prayer, particularly in public at this time when some violent people are trying to grab religion for themselves. One older woman had brought two bouquets of flowers for the memorial and gave our daughters one of them. Many faithful people practice a peaceable and loving presence. Why should we let the terrorists or an angry atheist shut our compassion up into a hidden, private booth?
Two young ladies, one named Fanny with soft mournful eyes, and Victoria, who was skinny and very fragile looking, told us that they often danced in Le Bataclan. After hearing us pray, tears came down their cheeks. Victoria’s cousin had experienced one of the victims falling at her feet and dying.
They asked us if we wanted to accompany them to another shooting location. Fanny and Victoria wanted company and comfort from us pastors while they took their pilgrimage through the killing sites. It was rather like a pilgrimage to memorials for martyrs, except we went through many police barricades.
We went with them to Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge restaurants where at least a dozen people were killed. As we say in the Bronx, the scene was “heavy.” People were very nervous, and there was a sense of both determination and foreboding. It was hard not to be affected by the emotions in the air.
My daughters, Skylar and Dallas, knelt down to light some candles. There were many, many lit candles. Then, Skylar’s dress came too close and was charred by the flames. Alarmed, I picked her up quickly to walk away. Just at that moment, there were some popping sounds. Someone else in the distance screamed, “A man has a gun!”
About twenty people came running towards us. My wife Tiffany, who was already protectively concerned about the accident to my daughter, suddenly shouted, “Run, Dimas, run!”
Now, I laugh, we felt like Forrest Gump, who in the movie shows up anonymously at various historic times. We turned and ran and found ourselves in the middle of hundreds of people in a panic. Some people fell, and others started shoving their way through. Pastor Bill was shoved into the memorial’s flower bed. Skylar and I lost our balance and fell to the ground. My hand was trampled and my knee cut, and they started to drizzle blood on the ground. Desperate to avoid being trampled to death, we bounced up quickly. A kindly woman gestured to us and yelled in French, “Come in now!” So, we took refuge in her home.
Tiffany yelled, “We have lost Dallas!”
So, we left the safety of the home and rushed out into the streets calling, “Dallas! Dallas!”
By this time guns were pointing everywhere. Some of them came upon us. I opened my hands and tried to explain our mission.
Dallas actually had moved faster than any of us and had hid behind a black SUV. A local French woman had placed her body on top of our daughter’s. Pastor Bill called to tell us that he had found our daughter.
We had not been in Paris ten hours before we experienced the power of terrorism. No gunman existed, but a kid with fire crackers, perhaps, created total chaos for blocks. Yet, even in the midst of terror, the people of Paris protected us and my daughter. We stand with our brothers and sisters in Paris. Love and peace and prayers for them!
Photos by Dimas and Tiffany Salaberrios
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