By Barry Klassel
Humanist Chaplain at Rutgers University 

The school killings on December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut, brought representatives of various belief traditions together for a Memorial Service in a Somerset County (NJ) Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) a week later.

I went to express compassion for the survivors and to share some humanist thoughts.  The event was sponsored by the Somerset County Cultural Diversity Coalition.  The following is from a short few words I was able to offer while there.

The Human Community

Good evening.  I’m an atheist and a humanist.  You probably don’t have many people like me here with your group so thank you for inviting me to speak to you good people.

Joyful events bring good people together, like celebrating the holidays around the winter solstice, which is today.

Tragic events also bring us together, like Hurricane Sandy and violence against children.

These events help us see that we are part of one human family – atheists and believers, men and women, old and young.  Being human means we can feel, in our muscles and our bones, what others are feeling, not perfectly, but well enough.

When we say we can’t imagine what the parents in Newtown are feeling we say it in part because we don’t want to allow ourselves to feel all their pain. But we must try.

So imagine for a moment, as best you can, what it would be like to identify your child’s body.  Then imagine going home and seeing your child’s empty room, the toys in the corner she will never play with, the clothes in the drawer he will never wear.

We cry together.  We laugh together.  We celebrate. We memorialize.  We are mortal members of one family living together on this little planet, our home in the cosmos.

Now, as we all know, families are not always about peace and love.  Make no mistake, we sometimes commit violent acts against one another, but for every such act we do a hundred, a thousand acts of kindness, acts of heroism toward one another, most of which go unreported.

And we desire to do even better.  For that we must ask ourselves some tough questions.  Let us not ask of a tragic event, “How could this happen?” It’s easy to see the universe isn’t always a friendly place as Hurricane Sandy and gun violence prove.  Let us instead ask, “How did this happen?”

We don’t yet know the mind of the killer, but let us also look into ourselves and ask, “How do I handle anger?  What do I do for attention that is hurtful?  And how can I change for the better?

Let us look for answers, big and small, that will make us better as individuals and as a society.  And, as we do so, let us hug one another more often, listen to each other more closely and reach out to others who are suffering with greater love.

May it be so.  May we do so.

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