I was drifting in and out of sleep beginning at 4:00 am one Saturday morning. When the clock struck 5:00, I don’t remember whether I was awake or asleep; I only remember jolting straight up in bed as six gunshots pierced the unusually quiet night air. I stumbled out of bed into the dimly lit hallway, down the grand staircase of the 333 House. All was quiet, aside from the creaking of the 100-year-old floor boards beneath my feet. Unable to tell if I was awake or dreaming, I made my way back upstairs to my room, where my roommate was still sound asleep.
As soon as I shut my door, I heard footsteps in the hallway. I opened the door to find my friend Tannon stumbling toward me, still half-asleep. “You alright?” he asked.
“Okay. I just called the cops.”
My heart sank. “So that actually happened?”
He nodded. “Yep.”
Within minutes, we could hear sirens in the distance, as the Harrisburg Bureau of Police filled 13th Street with nine cruisers. Tannon and I stood in the upstairs window, looking on, as the alley across the street from us was roped off with crime scene tape.
As Tannon made his way up to the third floor to check on the rest of the house’s residents, I walked downstairs to the living room and sat down in one of the leather chairs that was pointed toward the window. Red and blue lights danced through the drapes and against the walls and ceiling. The whole scene was surreal. I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time; I guess I couldn’t think of anything, all I could do was feel.
I crawled back into bed a half hour later, but I couldn’t sleep. When I got up at 8:00, the morning light revealed what had previously been hidden in the darkness. Evidence markers littered the alley, and the beat cops had been replaced with detectives in suits and ties. Though I still had no idea what had taken place aside from the six shots, in my heart I knew and grieved.
Life is so fragile. At any moment, it can come to a screeching end. But that wasn’t what humanity was originally destined for; we were created to live forever, in constant connection with our Creator. While the beauty of this is often cloaked by the terrifying moments of our lives, it still pushes its way through every now and then, just as the sun breaks forth across the sky to mark each new morning. Between the horizons, we experience a life that is fragile and terrifying and beautiful at the same time.
I drove halfway to Maryland that afternoon. I wasn’t far from Harrisburg, yet I was deep in the rugged back country of Rural Pennsylvania. I began hiking the Appalachian Trail, beneath a thick canopy of trees. Thunder rolled in the distance, but all else was silent. Though it was still early in September, a few leaves had already turned from green to gold and fallen from the sky to the earth below. I would bend down at random intervals, pick up one leaf at a time, and examine it as I walked. After a few minutes, I would set it back down and pick up another. I did this four times. Each leaf had its own unique features, but there was one that was different from the rest. This leaf was still mostly green, with a vein of gold shooting down the middle. As I stared at the leaf, I was hit with the realization that sometimes we fall before we reach our peak of beauty.
A few hours later, I returned to The Hill. As I was sitting at one of the local restaurants waiting for my meal to be prepared, I searched for news articles on the Internet, hoping to gain some clarity on what had happened that morning. The first entry I came to confirmed my fears.
When the police arrived, he was still clinging to life, but life was absent by the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital. Blood remained, spattered against the wall of the church building near where he had fallen.
Nathaniel Green was only 39. I never met him, but I know his life wasn’t supposed to end that way. Every person has a destiny far greater than having their lives taken from them. Sometimes we fall before we reach our peak of beauty.
The news article quoted one of my neighbors, who was in his kitchen cooking spaghetti when the shots were fired. “It really needs to stop,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.” His words were simple, yet they carried a certain weight to them; they carried the angst of the neighborhood. I have only lived here a month. I can’t even begin to say I understand what the lifelong residents of Allison Hill are going through, what they go through every day of their lives. But I can join in the grieving. I can hope and pray and believe that things will change, and with God’s help, I can stand up and do something about it. While I have no idea what that looks like, I think it begins with getting to know my neighbors. This is something I don’t have a very good track record in, whether I live in inner-city Harrisburg, or the suburbs of North Texas.
The night of the shooting, we were gathered in our living room. We had just finished watching a movie that showcased the raw power of God, on display of the streets of cities across the world, all because a few people were crazy enough to believe that they are who God says they are, that Jesus Himself lives inside of them.
Seeds of hope lingered in the room as the credits rolled. Within minutes, we begun to aggressively pray for our neighborhood. From there, we began to think of ways we could be more active in releasing the hope that swallows up death into the streets around our house. As I sit in a quiet coffeehouse in the suburbs, allowing these words to flow freely from my soul onto paper, a few of my friends from the house are knocking on doors and meeting our neighbors. And now, I think I will make my way into the city and join them.
For more on life in Allison Hill, click here to read my post “On the Hill.”