Within a week, two young men from my neighborhood were killed in separate incidents. Both of these boys had been part of the after school program that I ran years ago. A lot of time has passed since I last saw either one of them and so much has changed since then, but I can’t help seeing them as those young boys with light and life in their eyes.
I remember one of these boys as a 2nd grader. I see his big, brown eyes and a smile that could light up a room. He was mostly quiet and reserved when he was at the community center, but he let his playful side show at times. I see him sitting at a table working hard to finish his homework. I see him holding a paintbrush working on an art project. I see him playing at a park wearing a hat too big for his little head. I see him laughing as we spray him and his friends with water from a hose on a hot day. I see a little boy wanting to belong, wanting to have fun, wanting to discover what he was capable of.
I remember the other boy as a 5th grader. Like most 10 year old boys, he was trying to find the balance between enjoying the simple pleasures of being a kid and looking cool in front of his friends. He tested the limits at times, but my most vivid memory of him was when we planned a community service project for our students. I was surprised when he was one of the few students who signed up to bake cookies and take them to an assisted living facility. He showed up ready to serve and didn’t seem concerned to enter a new space that was probably out of his comfort zone. I saw the smile on his face as he delivered cookies, played games with the residents, and engaged in conversation. I saw the love in his heart through the tough exterior that he sometimes tried to put on. It’s a beautiful thing when you get to witness the walls coming down.
Though my memories of those boys are frozen in time, they grew up a lot over the past 10 years. They struggled. They experienced pain. They tried to find their place in a world that often told them they weren’t good enough. Due to both choices they made and circumstances that were beyond their control, they each ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and their lives were cut short. It’s not right and it’s not fair.
The reality is that neither of these deaths will get much press and many people who do hear the stories will shake their heads and complain about crime rates. But few people outside of these boys’ immediate community will stop to grieve the tragedy of lives lost.
I see what people who simply read a headline don’t see. I see a mother who grieves the loss of her child, who sacrificed so much in order to give her son the opportunity of a better life. I see dreams shattered in an instant. I see a community that is left shaken, that comes together to make food and raise money for funeral expenses and simply bear witness to each other’s grief because they recognize the hole that is left behind.
Sometimes we try to minimize the tragedy of a death by blaming the deceased. We think that if we can list off all their errors and wrong choices then we won’t need to feel so bad that they’re gone. Maybe if they hadn’t done x, y, or z, they would still be here. But that really doesn’t make it any less tragic. There is still a person who bore the image of God whose life came to a screeching halt because of someone else’s act of aggression and hate.
The value of a life is not found in the sum of its accomplishments but in the fact that God declares each person worthy of love. That message is completely contradictory to a culture that tells us that we need earn and strive and prove our worth. But we must defy what culture tells us and remember that the value of a life is found in God creating humans in his own image and then looking upon them in delight and calling them “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The value of a life is found in Christ dying for us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8). The value of a life is God-given and inherent in each person.
Let us not look on any life as dispensable. Let us not disregard the significance of any person. Instead let us learn to see the value in those that our society considers “the least of these,” and let us mourn with those who mourn.