By Joshua Dubois, January 6, 2016
The White House is not supposed to be a place for brokenness. Sheer, shattered, brokenness. But that’s what we experienced on the weekend of December 14, 2012.
I was sitting at my desk around midday on Friday the 14th when I saw the images flash on CNN: A school. A gunman. Children fleeing, crying.
It’s sad that we’ve grown so accustomed to these types of scenes that my first thought was I hope there are no deaths, just injuries. I thought, Maybe it’s your run-of-the-mill scare.
And then the news from Sandy Hook Elementary School, a small school in the tiny hamlet of Newtown, Connecticut, began pouring in. The public details were horrific enough: Twenty children murdered. Six staff. Parents searching a gymnasium for signs of their kids.
But the private facts we received in the White House from the FBI were even worse.
How the gunman treated the children like criminals, lining them up to shoot them down. How so many bullets penetrated them that many were left unrecognizable. How the killer went from one classroom to another and would have gone farther if his rifle would’ve let him.
That news began a weekend of prayer and numbness, which I awoke from on Saturday only to receive the word that the president would like me to accompany him to Newtown. He wanted to meet with the families of the victims and then offer words of comfort to the country at an interfaith memorial service.
I left early to help the advance team — the hardworking folks who handle logistics for every event—set things up, and I arrived at the local high school where the meetings and memorial service would take place. We prepared seven or eight classrooms for the families of the slain children and teachers, two or three families to a classroom, placing water and tissues and snacks in each one. Honestly, we didn’t know how to prepare; it was the best we could think of.
The families came in and gathered together, room by room. Many struggled to offer a weak smile when we whispered, “The president will be here soon.” A few were visibly angry — so understandable that it barely needs to be said — and were looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Mostly they sat in silence.
I went downstairs to greet President Obama when he arrived, and I provided an overview of the situation. “Two families per classroom . . . The first is . . . and their child was . . . The second is . . . and their child was . . . We’ll tell you the rest as you go.”
The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget.
Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son. . . . Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away—many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all — the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.
And then the entire scene would repeat — for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss. After each classroom, we would go back into those fluorescent hallways and walk through the names of the coming families, and then the president would dive back in, like a soldier returning to a tour of duty in a worthy but wearing war. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and every single person received the same tender treatment. The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer.
The staff did the preparation work, but the comfort and healing were all on President Obama. I remember worrying about the toll it was taking on him. And of course, even a president’s comfort was woefully inadequate for these families in the face of this particularly unspeakable loss. But it became some small measure of love, on a weekend when evil reigned.
And the funny thing is — President Obama has never spoken about these meetings. Yes, he addressed the shooting in Newtown and gun violence in general in a subsequent speech, but he did not speak of those private gatherings. In fact, he was nearly silent on Air Force One as we rode back to Washington, and has said very little about his time with these families since. It must have been one of the defining moments of his presidency, quiet hours in solemn classrooms, extending as much healing as was in his power to extend. But he kept it to himself — never seeking to teach a lesson based on those mournful conversations, or opening them up to public view.
Jesus teaches us that some things — the holiest things, the most painful and important and cherished things — we are to do in secret. Not for public consumption and display, but as acts of service to others, and worship to God. For then, “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you,” perhaps not now, but certainly in eternity. We learned many lessons in Newtown that day; this is one I’ve kept closely at heart.
Excerpted from THE PRESIDENT’S DEVOTIONAL: The Daily Readings That Inspired President Obama, by Joshua DuBois by arrangement with HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © Joshua DuBois 2013.
Photograph of President Obama wiping away tears as he speaks about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence, January 5, 2016, by Carolyn Kaster (The Associated Press). http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/obamas-tears-invite-passion-for-action-against-gun-violence/