You’d never know there was a mass shooting in Vestavia Hills last night.
I drove through Vestavia today. It was sunny. There was a decent lunch rush at Martin’s Barbecue Joint. There were roadside posters advertising the chamber of commerce’s upcoming “I Love America Night,” which will feature a picnic, a firework show, and a Baptist orchestra playing Sousa marches for the whole family.
Just another day in Birmingham.
I got my haircut in town. I asked the barber what he thought about the recent shooting. He stopped snipping and said grimly, “I guess this is just the world we live in now.”
I keep hearing that phrase. “This is the world we live in now.” Occasionally I hear variations of the theme. But it’s all the same. People are basically saying, “Hey, this world sucks, but you can’t change it, so get used to it.”
I went to a lunch spot in Vestavia today, and I asked the waitress what she thought about the shooting. She said, “I guess this is our life now.”
I went to the bank. I asked the clerk for his reaction to the shooting. He said, “This is the new normal, I guess.”
Last night, at a potluck at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, a 71-year-old gunman opened fire and killed three. They say the gunman was stand-offish at supper. Church members asked him to sit with them, but he refused. People were kind to him. Friendly. Hospitable.
Whereupon he removed a pistol and started pulling the trigger. He killed Walter Rainey, 84, of Irondale; Jane Pounds, 84, of Hoover; and Sarah Yeager, 75, of Pelham.
This happened 8 miles from my front porch.
In other words, this doesn’t feel like national news to me. Not now. This happened to my people. This happened at a church where I have attended.
I called several friends who live in Vestavia Hills to see how they were holding up. Their reactions surprised me. I expected them to blow it off. I expected them to tell me they were doing fine. But they’re not fine.
“This was way too close to home. Last night, I could see blue lights from my backyard, from all the cop cars nearby. There were FBI people walking in my neighborhood. Not something I ever thought I’d see. I have kids, man.”
Another friend said: “I coulda swore I heard gunshots last night, but I don’t know, probably not. Maybe that’s just my imagination going wild. But I can’t believe mass shootings are now in our own town.” Then she added: “Maybe this is just the way the world is now.”
The scary thing is, this shooting occurred at a potluck, of all places.
Today, I drove past Saint Stephen’s, nestled in the trees. I glanced at the fellowship hall, tucked behind the police-barricade tape, and I remembered a potluck I attended there once. It was a great night.
I remember I sat in a folding chair and ate ginormous portions of pulled pork until my feet swelled. I inhaled pound cake. I guzzled sugary tea. I remember laughing a lot. I remember rubbing elbows with the clergy.
I remember watching a church member play guitar onstage to entertain children. I saw little girls dancing the Mashed Potato to “Brown Eyed Girl.” I saw people smiling. All in all, it was a nice evening spent alongside happy, moderately inebriated Episcopalians.
Never once during that evening did I think a gunman would come barging into the fellowship hall ready to lay me down. Not once did my mind consider that innocent children could be struck down amidst their reverie. Never did I think people would die while they were eating pretzel salad and squash casserole. My mind never even went there.
But it’s going there now.
I called an old friend, an Episcopalian priest, to see what he had to say about it. His name is Father Peter, and he said this:
“It’s a hard day for me to preach hope. But that’s the only answer I really have. Hope. Because in darkness, like the darkness of this age, it’s damned hard not to want to let my rage and frustration answer more loudly than my hope.”
He’s right, you know. It really is hard.
But hey, that’s just the world we live in.