Hope amidst tragedy


A headline in Saturday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Celebrities section reads “Harrison Ford, Jon Meis, Mekayla Diehl and more!”

Such has been life for the family of one of my son’s best friends for the past week and half, sharing headlines with Han Solo and a Miss America contender. Chad Meis and A.J. have been close friends since A.J. started at Seattle Pacific University five years ago. Saturday we were at SPU’s graduation to watch my daughter-in-law Robyn receive her diploma, but the course of history changed a lot of lives (and ended one prematurely) in the last week before graduation.

Jon Meis is the now-graduated SPU senior who stopped a murderer from doing more damage than he’d already done, pepper-spraying and disarming the gunman after one student was killed and two others injured in an SPU campus science building on Thursday, June 5.

We see so many stories of bystanders doing nothing or running away in fear when they come upon someone being assaulted or worse. Meis, unarmed except for his pepper spray – working his last shift as a building monitor at SPU’s Otto Miller Hall, one week away from graduation and two weeks before his wedding – kept a tragedy from becoming a bloodbath.

Like many associated with SPU that afternoon (I am a 1987 alumnus as well) I felt that chill of terror as I awaited word to see if my son, daughter-in-law, or several longtime friends I have on staff there were among the casualties.

None were, but that was cold comfort knowing it meant someone else’s loved one was dead. A professor friend of mine told me of hiding out in a storage room during the resulting lockdown, only knowing that there had been a shooting and that there might be a gunman on the loose. His phone battery died; he could hear helicopters and blaring loudspeakers but had no idea if his colleagues or students were OK. Some of his friends watched events unfold from second floor offices with window views of the area where the shootings occurred, helpless to intervene. Others were cloistered in classrooms, scrambling for self-defense measures, unsure of who might burst through the door.

The crime scene was still taped off the next morning, but that didn’t stop advocacy groups from trying to make Jon Meis the poster child for their cause.

“Jon Meis ‘Likes’ NRA on Facebook!” crowed a pro-gun website Friday morning; “Jon Meis didn’t need a gun to subdue shooter!” offered an anti-gun website.

And so it began, a kid who only wanted to graduate, get married and begin his life after college, was unwillingly thrust into the public spotlight. On one hand, grateful and impressed strangers paid (several times over) for every item on Jon and his fiancee’s wedding registry, as well as donating more than $50,000 to a fund set up by a Seattle radio producer for their honeymoon.

On the other hand, it’s meant living under siege as the media descended on his family’s home, making any kind of normal life impossible, including at his own graduation. The Meis family has required security both formal and informal, primarily headed by Chad and enhanced at times with the help of A.J. and some of their former SPU cross country teammates, who have provided a tight-knit cordon of protection around the quiet hero.

My alma mater made me proud with its handling of the entire episode, especially in those first few hours when no scripted public relations campaign was in place to control messages or provide spin. Staff and students alike responded with a combination of grace and raw honesty we don’t often see.

Jon received a pair of standing ovations at the graduation ceremony, most heartfelt from the 800 or so fellow graduates. A new scholarship in the SPU School of Engineering has been established in his name (as well as school-sponsored funds to aid the shooting victims and the family of Paul Lee, who lost his life).

Left unanswered are the larger questions that plague our society, about guns and nearly everything else. As a Christian school, some at SPU were asking, “What would Jesus do about guns?” I don’t know, but I also wonder: if Jesus were the last line of defense for the 200 young girls that the militant group Boko Haram kidnapped in Nigeria a few weeks ago, what would he do?

Is there a way to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill and attention seekers who see a high body count as the way to fame or infamy, when either will do? And will that process also take them away from those only who want to defend themselves and their families?

One of the many reasons we have the tsunami of immigrants flooding our border with Mexico is that the rank-and-file citizens of countries south of us can’t defend themselves. Mexico, for instance, has some of the strictest gun laws in the western hemisphere. U.S. Marine Andrew Tahmooressi discovered this the hard way when he accidentally crossed the border with three guns that are legal in the United States but illegal in Mexico; he’s been jailed for months.

Meanwhile the drug cartels are better-armed (illegally) than the military. When a group of Mexican citizens armed themselves to defend their town of Tepalcatapec, their actions were illegal as well. Faced with an uncomfortable choice, the Mexican government deputized the vigilantes into the police force which before that had been unable to defend the local citizens, rather than prosecute those who took it upon themselves to stand up to the local cartel.

We don’t want that kind of environment here; yet our trust in our own government isn’t exactly high these days as federal regulatory agencies (i.e. Bureau of Land Management, even student loan collection agencies) suddenly seem to have their own SWAT teams to deal with those that are deemed “internal threats.”

Maybe there is a way to keep the Columbine wannabe assassins from shredding our kids’ lives in their places of education without sacrificing the freedoms that have made the United States a unique and blessed place to live; maybe there aren’t.

I don’t have those answers and I have yet to hear anything in the ceaseless blathering of media personalities or politicians that indicates that they do either. Words are cheap, and my generation is adept at issuing sound bytes, writing speeches and making headlines out of every foolish utterance by every person who becomes famous for no good reason at all.

Maybe the generation represented by Jon Meis (with no desire whatsoever for fame) and his SPU Class of 2014 will do better.

When thrown into crisis, we find out who a person really is at their core whether we know them or not. When the crucible of tragedy ruthlessly burned away pretense and left no time for words for the SPU community, their actions were a bright light on a dark day.

And so a real-life hero shares headlines with one of the iconic fictional heroes of our time. Maybe there is hope for our nation after all.