You could easily have missed the news story last week about 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill, who walked into a school filled with 870 children in Decatur, Georgia with an AK-47-style assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition. After all, though shots were fired, no one was killed or even wounded, and the media soon moved on. Tragedy was averted when an unarmed school bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff, talked the mentally ill gunman into laying down his gun and surrendering.
How was she able to do it? "It was all God,” she said later. “I was just praying." When the gunman entered the front office, Tuff, who was replacing the school secretary for a few minutes, says she remembered her pastor’s Sunday sermon about how you have to “anchor yourself in the Lord” and “realized that this situation was bigger than me.”
When CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked her, “How did you know what to say to him?” she replied, “Well, to be honest with you, I didn't. I was just praying...and saying ‘God, what do I say now? What do I do now?’ I just kept saying that on the inside because I knew that I had no words to say.”
“We're not going to hate you.”
God gave Tuff the words she needed, as Jesus promises: “Do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt. 10:19-20). She convinced the police to hold off while she engaged the shooter in conversation. At one point in the 24-minute recorded 911 call, we hear her telling the gunman: “It's going to be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? And I'm proud of you. That's a good thing that you're just giving up and don't worry about it. We all go through something in life."
The gunman said he had “nothing to live for.” Tuff told him she had been down before herself, and shared with him about her son with multiple disabilities and her recent divorce after 33 years of marriage. “I thought the same thing, you know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me. But look at me now. I'm still working and everything is OK.”
"Wasn't nobody but God."
As with other school shootings, debates over the failures of the mental health system, the availability of guns, and school security will likely drag on with little result. But this time, we glimpsed a different possibility. “Love your enemies,” Jesus taught, “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6: 27–28). This love allowed Tuff, at the critical moment, to see in a would-be mass murderer another person loved by God, and to reach out to him with compassion and empathy.
Tuff is uncomfortable with being hailed as a hero. “I give it all to God, I'm not the hero. I was terrified,” she told an interviewer. And indeed, had things gone differently, she might be portrayed in media accounts not as a hero, but as a misguided religious fanatic. She had no way of knowing if the gunman, rather than listening to her, would not instead kill her and dozens of children. There is, of course, no guarantee that those who trust in the seemingly absurd nonviolent love that Jesus advocates will succeed. In fact, it has cost more than a few people their lives. Thank God that Tuff had the courage to live according to her faith anyway.
Most of us will never know what we would do in such a situation. But each of us can go to work every morning “anchored in the Lord,” asking him to use us to bring a little of his love and peace into a world of brokenness and fear. After her ordeal, Tuff said she hoped to be back at work the next day, “sitting in that same seat, blessing the next person.”