Our church and community just suffered the trauma of the death of Riley Howell, a young man raised in our congregation, who hurled himself at a gunman who invaded his classroom at UNC-Charlotte, shooting at the students. As his strong body crushed the young man beneath his own, a bullet took his life. His action gave police time to capture the killer. Only one other student died in the shooting. Though we did not know Riley personally, we know several members of the family and have spent many hours with his great aunt. Riley’s heroism did not arise from a vacuum. It was the core of his communal and familial ethos.
This is a town knit together by long-standing family ties, civic associations, school friendships, and a common love of these beautiful mountains. Streets and bridges were lined with well-wishers as his body was returned here for burial. The funeral had to be held in the largest auditorium in the county. Our local paper, The Mountaineer, devoted most of an issue to Riley’s life and his heroic action in death.
At our monthly roundtable worship Sunday evening his Sunday School teacher, who had put her hand on his head at baptism and confirmation, was able to share her grief and her thanks for this blessing that blazed through our life like a meteor. He is one more marker, not only to the demonic violence of our society but to the self-giving love that will get us out of it. It is at tables like this that reconciliation takes root. The table is a place for healing as well as conversation and nurture.
Riley’s exuberant, self-giving life will remain in our consciousness as a light to guide us out of the isolation of suspicious fear into the solidarity of mutual giving that is life itself. His own gift calls all of us to do what we can, where we are, to demand laws, policies, and redoubled commitment to our communal fabric to turn back the gun violence that rips at our children’s lives, at our congregations’ sanctity, and our public life itself. Take a minute with us to give thanks for Riley and for all those who have lived out to the full Jesus’s ancient words that no one has greater love than this, to lay down his or her life not only for their friend but for the stranger and their neighbor (John 15:13).