On the morning of January 5, a fire engulfed a Philadelphia townhouse that had been turned into apartments. Twelve people died, including nine children.
Most Americans probably heard the news and then moved on to the next big story. Perhaps the situation on the Ukrainian border caught our attention or the fight against the filibuster or the horror of another larger apartment fire, this one in the Bronx.
But then my daughter told me what I had missed.
“Did you know that the 5-year-old boy who was playing with a lighter, which set the Christmas tree on fire, walked out of the building alive?”
I felt like someone had punched me. No, I didn’t realize that a 5-year-old probably caused the Philadelphia fire, survived, and told authorities what happened. And after investigation, officials believe the evidence supports his story.
My heart broke for this 5 year old. What would this burden do to his life? In a matter of moments, the trajectory of his future curved into something unimaginable.
He had to know all the victims. Some of them were probably playmates, and worse, maybe some were his immediate family.
He will probably live his life close to this community. People can always define him as “the boy who…” That’s what he can imagine they’re thinking. Let’s hope that’s not how he defines himself.
I admit it, my first reaction was to be angry with God. How could God allow such a thing?
But the horror was everywhere – for the victims, their families, the other survivors. Beyond that, every day there are victims of violence, wars, accidents, overdoses, suicides.
Why did the absence of God seem so striking in this case? Maybe because my son was 5 years old, or maybe because the tragedy became so real in the person of a little guy wandering around the house early in the morning whose curiosity would change his life forever.
The cruelty of the world suddenly seemed encapsulated in its history. Where have you been, my God?
I found solace in an excellent column written by Helen Ubiñas in the January 12 Philadelphia Inquirer. She had the same concerns for the child as I did.
This led her to visit the “Accidental Impacts” website, which offers support for people facing death or injury they unintentionally caused. Think, for example, of a woman backing out of a parking space who has no idea that a 2-year-old just ran behind her car.
Ubiñas spoke with one of the group’s board members, an Episcopal priest named David Peters, who as a teenager accidentally killed a motorcyclist with his car. I was moved to realize how people respond to tragedy, often out of their own grief, by doing good.
Peters agreed that the child would need considerable support. And, he mentioned the biblical “cities of refuge”.
I visited Exodus 21:13. Mosaic law authorized the execution of murderers, but in the event of accidental death, the perpetrator could be safe from revenge in one of six specified cities.
Ubiñas suggested that his city, Philadelphia, be a “city of refuge” for all children.
Life is full of mystery and sometimes faith is hard. But the God I believe in is not a controlling God, but a God who suffers with us and holds back our pain. Jesus, on a hill full of hungry people, said to his disciples: “You yourselves give them something to eat” (Lk 9:13).
We live in a broken world, and the God crying with a devastated 5-year-old challenges us to fix things. It’s a huge task, one step at a time, but the Lord walks with us.