Public tragedies can let us engage with mankind

Originally published in the Deseret News.

Today, Utah will say goodbye to Draper Police Sgt. Derek Johnson, a man who served our community, loved his family and died in the line of duty. He leaves behind a wife, a 6-year old son and a heartbroken family. He also leaves behind a grieving community.

The collective grief we feel for the Johnson family is not unlike the sadness felt after other “public deaths,” including the 10 LDS missionaries who have died this year. The pain stretches deep into our hearts, and we mourn for people we don’t even know.

I worked in Washington during the Katrina disaster. Even though it was not part of the mission of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), my colleagues administered aid to people who had passed during national tragedies. It was a difficult, often gruesome and needed process of collecting what was left of the fallen and making sure they were treated with dignity. It was a simple act of decency that someone needed to do.

In the case of Katrina, HHS sent 12 chaplains from a variety of faith traditions to New Orleans to offer prayers of comfort at the collection sites (temporary morgues) for the people who had perished. Many of these casualties would take weeks to identify.

A friend of mine helped compose a beautiful, simple and non-denominational prayer that was used in New York City after 9/11 and in New Orleans after Katrina. The prayer was offered one-by-one, for each person, as an important human gesture of love and dignity for the people brought to these temporary sanctuaries. It read:

“We give thanks for this person’s life.

We give thanks that this person was found.

We give thanks for the persons who found them.

We ask that they may be made whole in God’s arms.

And that they may know peace.”

Giving prayers as a government entity is not for the faint of heart. A rabbi said the prayer was too “Episcopalian,” and the American Civil Liberties Union kept close watch. The person responsible for the prayer operation told us, “We are on the sides of angels on this one.” I remember being in a senior staff meeting where, when asked about the legality of what we were doing, the legal counsel said, “This is a case I wouldn’t mind losing.”

This is how the collective yearning to honor those who have passed works. We are engaged with mankind.

After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Ronald Reagan inspired a nation with his brief remarks about the courage and inspiration of the shuttle crew. He quoted from a WWII-era sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee:

“I have slipped the surly bonds of earth. Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

The words remind us that there is a better future for us all. When we return to our maker, we find a peace we will never find on this earth.

The poet John Donne captured the ultimate unity of mankind when he penned the immortal prose, No Man is An Island. In it he writes about the ringing of a distant church bell at a funeral and the conversations it inspires among the people in the town. It’s as if they are saying, “Who died?” Donne answers by writing:

“Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.”

Take a private quiet moment today or this weekend to think of, pray for and send your love to the Johnson family. Do the same for others who have recently lost a loved one. Tap into a collective and strong faith that confirms everything will be all right, the people we have loved and lost, both known and unknown, are in paradise today. Let yourself be engaged with mankind.