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Sacred ground

The Boston Marathon bombings desecrated a public ritual and a beloved place. No wonder the attack feels so personal.
By John Gibb Millspaugh
4.29.13

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Patrick Flaherty, a 38-year-old special education teacher and part-time bartender, had never before asked me for pastoral counseling. But the week of the Boston Marathon bombing, that changed.

“I feel like I’ve been assaulted by this attack myself,” Patrick said. He gave me permission to share some of our conversation.

“I do, too,” I admitted. As the week unfolded we’d learn that many of Patrick’s fellow congregants at Winchester Unitarian Society and millions of people around the world felt personally violated as well. But why?

First and most obviously, it’s personal. Patrick Flaherty’s son is 8 years old, as was bombing victim Martin Richard. Like some of my congregants, I live in Krystle Campbell's hometown of Medford, Massachusetts, where sidewalks are now dotted with handmade shrines. The Boston transit police officer who lost nearly all of his blood after being shot in the gun battle, Richard Donohue, was a Winchester boy; his younger brother Edward serves on the Winchester police force still.

Some of my congregants crossed the marathon’s finish line just minutes before the bomb went off. The coworker of another church member lost a leg. One parishioner usually works Marathon Monday at Marathon Sports, where the blast blew in the windows, but this year swapped for a Sunday shift. One had the job of spending the afternoon tracking down eighty international hotel guests evacuated in the aftermath.

But it’s more personal still. Consider Patrick’s story. It was 1986; his father Peter had run five other marathons successfully in order to qualify for the nation’s oldest: Boston. Patrick was 11. Hours after Peter was expected at the finish line, the family still waited at the corner of Boylston and Exeter, not knowing heat exhaustion had taken Peter out of the race on Heartbreak Hill. When Peter finally reached them, he was exhausted, beaten, his hopes for the year dashed.

So throughout the next year as Peter trained for his comeback as a matter of family pride, little Patrick often rode his bike for miles alongside, encouraging him as best he could. Patriots’ Day 1987 found the Flaherty family on that same crowded corner of Exeter and Boylston, Patrick on tiptoes watching for his father with fearful hope. The moment he spotted his dad, he surprised himself by bursting into tears of relief.

Twenty-two years later, in 2009, the roles reversed. Patrick pinned his own number to his chest. When he reached the corner of Exeter and Boylston and looked left into the crowd to see his father cheering him, the unexpected tears came again.

“It was an experience of vivid and pure joy, one of the top three or four moments of my life,” Patrick told me. “That spot is sacred ground.”

Tens of thousands of Bostonians, New Englanders, U.S. residents, and international athletes arrive at the corner of Boylston and Exeter each year to one of the most profound experiences of their lives. It’s said a lungful of air has never felt as nourishing or as sweet as it does at that corner. To reach the finish line, athletes expend such tremendous effort—even before the starting gun—that they never forget the moment they make it to that corner.

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of athletes from around the world competing, each year a half million spectators surround the public ritual. If not you, then someone you know remembers the finish line at Boylston and Exeter—that place of triumph and exhaustion, reunions with loved ones, glasses raised, tears shed, shoulders leaned on, hands uplifted—as sacred ground.

The marathon is a public ritual that lasts for a day, a week, perhaps even all year. Until the IRS stopped processing paper returns at its Andover, Massachusetts, facility, Massachusetts residents had an extra day to turn in federal taxes when Patriots’ Day/Marathon Monday fell on April 15. Public schools take the full marathon week as vacation. Whether height of summer or dead of winter, each time I drive to church I see aspiring marathoners grimacing past. The marathon is a public ritual belonging not just to those who have made it to that holy-of-holies, the finish line, not even just to anyone who’s ever run or seen it or been inspired by the vision of thousands of athletes celebrating beauty, diversity, and human excellence. It belongs to all of us.

No wonder that within seconds of understanding the news, tens of millions of us were swept into shock and horror and sorrow, numbness and internal fragmentation, rage, a sense of desperate helplessness, a visceral desire to just do something. No wonder I’ve been fighting off this cascade of feelings even as I’ve compiled worship resources for my fellow clergy, as I’ve provided pastoral care, even in the pulpit as I helped lead an interfaith prayer service in response to the bombing.

Psychologists might say I’ve experienced a loss and am going through grief, or that my worldview took a blow and I’m having a secondary trauma response. Maybe. But I’ve long been aware that senseless violence happens in this country, and in this city, all the time. In this particular incident, what have I personally lost? How have I been hurt, exactly?

Take note: I and millions of others are responding so personally because our communal ritual and sacred space have been mauled by violence and murder.

The bombings were not just a tragedy, but a desecration.

So yes, it’s personal. In a real and important way, we ourselves were attacked. You and I were violated because, for almost all of us, there is a way in which this is our ritual, our city, our sacred space.

Right now, I’m scared of what might come next. When rituals and sacred spaces are profaned, reciprocal violence often follows, even against the innocent. Behavior comes from interior states, and we are hurting badly.

As information—and speculation—about the Tsarnaev brothers’ relationship to radical Islam spreads, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant slurs are boiling up. Just check Twitter or the comments section of any newspaper article on the topic.

Already in the town of Malden, a town I drive to each week for physical therapy, a white male has assaulted a hijab-wearing woman of Middle Eastern heritage out for a walk with her baby. He punched her for two minutes, shouting obscenities and saying, “Muslims, you are terrorists.”

It’s inexcusable and morally abhorrent. And yet, people whose sacred space has been violated naturally and desperately want someone to blame.

I shudder to think what we might yet add to the desecration.


To make it through my personal sense of violation, I’m going to need what Unitarian Universalism has to offer. I’m going to need courage and community to grieve. I’m going to need to stay in touch with compassion—for myself, and for all beings who suffer. (That even includes compassion for 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect.) Finally, I think I’ll need a sustained commitment to answering these acts of desecration with actions grounded in my own highest values. These will be my four touchstones: courage, community, compassion, and commitment—commitment to not only call on my highest values, but call them forth.

Patrick is ahead of me on that last one. He is starting a fundraiser at his school for One Fund Boston and hoping to revive the defunct Winchester Town Day Race to further support recovery efforts.

I’m still trying to figure out what I can do to be of use. I’ve only had glimmers, mostly symbolic. Still, when I was asked to show up for a Standing on the Side of Love rally on immigration reform, in a week that was already too busy, I didn’t hesitate as I might have the week before, but just said yes. When a stranger asked if I’d like to attend a “Take a Stand Against Racism” rally, I said yes without checking my calendar.

Perhaps it’s those small acts of faith that led me someplace unexpected on Tuesday, April 23. After a meeting in downtown Boston, I found myself on Boylston Street, standing among thousands of flowers and hundreds of personal mementos and handwritten signs. An impromptu public memorial had sprung up along the barricades a few blocks from the site of the bombings. Before I arrived a woman had slipped off her running shoes as tribute and walked away barefoot; by the time I arrived there were scores more pairs.

In front of a shuttered storefront, three small white wooden crosses stood with elegant simplicity, each bearing the name and picture of one of the three victims who had died on April 15. Carved by a man who had driven them to Boston from Colorado after the bombing, the three crosses were now adorned with ribbons and paper hearts, mementos and religious figurines. On the cross bearing the name and photograph of Lu Lingzi, someone had draped a necklace and peace pendant over the left crossbar, and atop the right crossbar a mourner had placed a serenely seated bronze Buddha.

Dozens of us stood silently outside a barrier separating us from all but the outer edges of the shrine. Inside the barrier moved men from Boston’s Department of Public Works. Because the police’s physical investigation was drawing to a close and Boylston Street would soon reopen, the DPW workers were relocating the objects from the impromptu shrine to a larger one in Copley Square.

At first, we passersby simply watched the DPW men as they loaded the flowers, cards, candles, and personal items into their white van. Gradually, without speaking to one another or to them, we flowed past the barricades to help them with their holy labor. I carried armful after armful of offerings to the van. The first consisted of three stuffed animals nestled in seven or eight bouquets of flowers, draped in an American flag on which someone had written thanks to Boston police for their heroism.

I’m not sure how long we gathered and carried. The time seemed outside of time. Second to last to be loaded on the truck were three tubs of stuffed animals, then five large bags full of running shoes. Both the spectators and DPW workers seemed hesitant to remove the three wooden crosses left standing alone on the granite sidewalk.

The DPW official in charge, noticing the clergy garb I was still wearing from the Standing on the Side of Love rally earlier that day, asked if I would say a few words before the crosses were loaded and the shrine dissolved completely. Inwardly I protested, thinking of the rightful separation of church and state. Then I looked out into the hopeful faces of the crowd. I stumbled through something: I remember speaking of compassion and love and respect for inherent worth and dignity of all, then calling for a moment of silence. I ended by saying, “May we all be the rebuilders.”

As I began to breathe again, one of the DPW workers spoke softly to the official, who then turned to me and asked if I would carry Martin Richard’s cross to the van. On its base rested a rubber ducky and a signed baseball; its top was wrapped in evergreens. Martin’s photograph had been pasted onto a red wooden heart. As I lifted the cross into my arms, I thought of my own son, and of Martin Richard, whom I would never meet. I can’t describe the feelings that surged in me as I lifted the memorial to this 8-year-old boy. Sorrow, humility, and reverence for the sacred privilege come close.

After workers drew down the van door and started its engine, stranger turned to stranger. “Were you just happening by this corner?” “Will you send me that picture you took?” “Do you have a card?” “Where were you when you heard about the bombings?”

The destruction of that day cannot be undone. But it can be answered. Already we are busying ourselves with healing: rallies to attend, vigils to hold, next year’s marathon to plan for. There is much to do on a symbolic level. I’m beginning to ask myself how to move beyond the symbolic. I’ll be searching for ways to answer the destructive acts of these two individuals with actions grounded in my own highest values. I’ll be looking for ways that we, together, might re-consecrate sacred ground.


Photograph (top): An impromptu shrine on Boylston Street to the victims of the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bomb attacks, shortly before the shrine was disassembled and moved to Copley Square on April 23 (© John Gibb Millspaugh). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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