Christian writer and activist Shane Claiborne came to Hesston, Kan., Feb. 19-21 to say that love casts out fear and that followers of Jesus should live in proximity to people’s pain. Four days later, when a mass shooting at Excel Industries left four dead and 14 wounded, the people of a peaceful small town put Claiborne’s theory into practice. They offered each other the assurance of God’s love and care “with skin on it,” as one pastor said.
Hesston is peaceful in the same way that most small towns in Kansas are: Violent crime is rare. It is also peaceful in the Christian beliefs of its Mennonite people. Nonviolence and love of enemies are preached and lived.
A Mennonite police officer who used lethal force is the hero, and the gratitude is profound. The questions surrounding the entire horrible incident are among the hardest anyone will ever have to face. The answers seem hollow and incomplete.
Summarizing what one newspaper called the “Mennonite dilemma,” Whitestone Mennonite Church Pastor Kurt Horst told MWR: “We are thankful for the lives that he saved; we grieve what he had to do to save them.”
Though some tensions between cherished ideals and wrenching realities may never be resolved, another kind of answer to tragedy is so simple that the people of Hesston found it as natural as breathing: They overcame evil with good by uniting as a community to show compassion and care. Within their own congregations and alongside their neighbors and co-workers, people came together like a family, as an Excel employee who goes to Whitestone Mennonite Church said. People remembered a similar response during the community’s previous greatest test, when a tornado devastated the town in 1990.
A reporter asked Hesston College faculty member Michele Hershberger if students were fearful. She said no; they were asking, “What can we do?” Their answer, like people across the town and the region, was to shine God’s light in a dark time.