On a balmy April day last year, I stepped into a taxi in suburban Boston and headed downtown to attend the interfaith service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in response to the Marathon bombings just three days earlier.
As I sat in the back of the cab, trying not to sweat too much through my suit, I felt a swirl of emotion moving through me: terrible sadness for the victims and their loved ones; great relief that my family members were safe; and lingering fear about the whereabouts of the perpetrators (as yet unknown) and their capacity to do more harm. I also felt a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to gather publicly with others from various religious and cultural communities to express our grief and solidarity.
When I arrived at the Cathedral, I was ushered through security to an area near the front of the sanctuary reserved for local clergy and communal leaders. About 20 minutes before the service was scheduled to begin, a few volunteers approached our section and explained that there were not enough seats for all of the invited first responders. "Would any of you be willing to give up your places?" Immediately, Imam Suhaib Webb, spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, leaped to his feat. Seeing the very tall, broad-shouldered Imam move so quickly in front of me triggered me to stand up as well.
Along with other colleagues, we were escorted to the side of the church, where we stood amidst secret service people, police and emergency personnel who lined the walls of the Cathedral. After an hour or so of standing, my (creaky) back began to ache, so I asked a man sitting on the end of the row closest to me if we could exchange places for a few minutes. Like Imam Webb, this person did not hesitate to give me his seat. More than once I quietly asked him if he wanted to sit down again, but he insisted that I remain seated.
When the service ended 45 minutes or so later, I approached the man and thanked him for his kindness. He responded by saying to me, "Rabbi, my name is Steve McHugh and I was a volunteer in a medical tent near the finish line. I want to share with you two stories of great kindness that I witnessed shortly after the bombings."
I nodded, and Steve shared the following two brief anecdotes with me:
As volunteers carried a badly injured man into our tent, his wallet fell out of his pocket. The man was quickly rushed to the hospital, and one of the volunteers picked up the wallet. Noticing that it was blood-soaked, he removed all of its contents, cleaned the cards and replaced the soiled bills with fresh ones. The volunteer then hand delivered the wallet to the injured man in the hospital.
A second story: a marathoner limped into our tent, his shorts and shirt stained with salt from the long run. He was grasping his ears, clearly suffering from the booming sounds of the explosives. However, after quickly surveying the scene in the tent, he walked out and sat down on a nearby park bench. Concerned for him, I followed the runner outside and asked why he had left so soon after entering the tent. "There are other people who need help much more urgently than I do," he replied. I then went back into the tent and brought the man a blanket and something to drink. As I walked away from him, I noticed a set of bloody footprints leading from the tent to the bench. The man had suffered shrapnel wounds to the lower part of his leg and the blood had seeped through his shoe.
With tears in his eyes, Steve said that he held the vision of those footprints and of the wallet in his mind as symbols of the many acts of kindness and bravery he witnessed in the minutes and hours after the bombings. I thanked Steve for sharing these moving stories with me and asked if I could share them with others. He readily agreed, gave me his business card in case I had any further questions, and we parted ways.
While I repeated his stories informally with family and friends, almost a whole year passed until I spoke with Steve again. Last week, while preparing remarks for a Marathon memorial service on my campus, I called Steve and he graciously reviewed the details of the stories with me. I continued to carry his card in my wallet in the days leading up to this year's race.
We need stories like these--particularly in times of pain and anguish--to remind us of our capacity for goodness. While life is marred by acts of human cruelty and violence, there are also countless people engaged daily in deeds of kindness. Hearing such stories is a vital source of inspiration as we seek to better ourselves and to create a more just and compassionate world.