As long as I lived that date will be etched into my memory. It was a beautiful spring morning in Oklahoma City. At 9:02 I was talking on the phone to a dear friend who preaches in Alabama. We were discussing an upcoming seminar, then I heard the noise. He also heard it, on the other end of the line in Alabama! He said, “What was that noise?” I said, “I'm not sure,” but it sounded like a swooshing noise, the kind made by an a/c unit turning on in a large building. My secretary knocked on my office door. She came in and told me that there had been some kind of explosion downtown and at the time that is all we knew. We turned on a television and immediately began to learn about the horrific explosion at the Murrah Federal Building in the heart of the city.
We hurriedly started making phone calls to check on church members. We had several people who worked in that building from time to time. We learned that they were all okay and breathed a small sigh of relief. In a matter of minutes the secretary knocked on the door again and said, Richard Walton is on the phone for you. Richard had a difficult time telling me that he believed his wife, Susan may have been in the building when the bomb exploded. I said, “Stay where you are, I’m on my way.” When I arrived at Richard’s office he informed me that she was on her way to take a college class, but wanted to stop by the federal credit union on her way. She would be there precisely at 9:00 as the credit union opened it’s doors. We began making phone calls to hospitals to see if we could find her. We could not locate her anywhere. I spent the rest of the day attempting to locate Susan. The good folks at the First Christian Church near the site had made their building available for people to come learn if their loved ones had survived. As a minister I was allowed to come and go. I visited with and prayed with a number of families who were waiting there to receive the news. As you can guess, people were shocked and devastated. I spent some time praying and visiting with a grandmother who was waiting to learn about her two precious grandchildren who had been in the child-care facility.
Susan’s name was not on either list. I then began to visit some of the hospitals to see if any of them had admitted her. Late that Wednesday afternoon our shepherds made the wise decision to dismiss our Bible study classes that night and meet together for a special time of prayer. We would pray for Susan and for everyone involved in this terrible tragedy. As we were nearing the end of the service, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Richard Walton is on the phone for you.” Richard told me that Susan had been found, she was in the hospital, but it didn’t look good for her. The elders and I went to the hospital and we stayed through the night praying with and attempting to encourage Richard. The doctors performed three major surgeries that night, and three times they came out to say they didn’t think she would make it. She did make it and while it took years she did recover. It took more than thirty surgeries for her to be able to walk again. She started a business to provide women with clothing that is appropriate for work. She has helped hundreds of women. Oh, by the way, they were able to locate her husband because she gave his phone number in sign language! She was on her way to a sign language class that morning to learn to assist the deaf and hearing impaired.
During the next few days our lives were a whirlwind. One of the major television stations from Shreveport, LA asked to do a day long interview. They followed us around everywhere that day. We got as close to the bombing site as anyone was allowed to get. We visited survivors in the hospital and prayed with them. We visited with and prayed with families who had lost loved ones. They ran a segment of the story every night on their network news. A part of the feed was picked up by CNN. They attended and recorded our worship service on the following Sunday morning. That day we discussed the comfort that God gives those who are hurting and the fact that God is still in control of our world. A call came from a reporter for the Chicago Tribune to see if they could attend our worship service. They interviewed us for the paper. There were numerous other interviews.
After fifteen years, the memories are still vivid. The lessons learned from the tragic event will be with me the rest of my life. I would like to share just a few of the lessons that stand out in my mind.
Sin Will cause men to perform unspeakable acts. The damage done on that infamous day was horrific. Nearly 700 people were injured. Of the 188 people who lost their lives that day, 19 of them were children under the age of six. They were innocent children who had never harmed anyone. Their lives were cut short, not because of some illness, but because of hatred in someones heart. The blast destroyed or damaged more than 300 buildings in the downtown area. The bomb was estimated to have cost nearly 700 million dollars.
The human spirit is resilient. I had the opportunity to speak with and pray with hundreds of people who were grieving, confused, and questioning what had happened to them. They spoke of their love for the ones who they had lost. They cried tears of pain. They talked of how they would carry the memory of their loved ones with them as long as they lived. They showed great fortitude in the midst of trial. We watched a city, state, and nation come together to rebuild broken lives and shattered hearts.
God’s people are compassionate, loving, helpful, and giving. On occasions I hear some misguided preachers among us speak of how members of the church of Christ are unloving, unkind, etc. Every time I read it in some blog or hear it in a sermon or conversation, I think about what I witnessed in 1995. Literally millions of dollars poured in from Christians and churches around the world to give to families who needed financial support. Susan Walton received calls, cards, and expressions of support from members of God’s family around the world. I received more calls from preachers, elders, and churches then I can count asking how they might help. It is my belief that God’s people are some of the finest people in the world and I resent it greatly when I hear some preacher who is critical of the church without really knowing what they are talking about. I watched the members of our congregation rally to support Richard and Susan, as well as others in more ways than I can describe.
A final lesson from Susan. During the intervening months Susan was interviewed probably hundreds of times. She would often call me and asked if I would sit in on an interview with her. I sat many times and listened to her tell her story. She never spoke with anger, bitterness, or resentment. She always spoke with love. When she and Richard were asked to go to Denver for a part of the trial, while they were gone, their house burned. At first, it was thought that someone might have burned it, but it was determined that it was caused by an electrical problem. Richard and Susan never showed any anger toward God. They never blamed God for their trials. In one particular interview I was privileged to be in a reporter said, “Mrs. Walton how can you not have anger or hatred for those who did this to you.” Her response was classic. It rings in my ears regularly, I will never forget her wonderful statement. She said, “The Good Book says, ‘you can’t go to Heaven with hate in your heart.” Thank you Susan, for the lessons you taught us during a time of great tragedy in your life.
If you are not from Oklahoma and you ever get a chance to go, do everything possible to go downtown to the Memorial. It is a beautiful, moving experience. It will help you have a greater understanding of what happened on April 15, 1995. While I still have sorrow in my heart for those who have suffered so much, I thank God for the lessons I learned during those days. Through those lessons I have been able to better minister to people who are hurting. A sign on at the Memorial says it best with only two words, “WE REMEMBER.”
Dear Father, please be with families today who are still grieving the loss of their loved ones because of this terrible tragedy that occurred fifteen years ago today. Bless those who continue to suffer physical and emotional scars because of the sin of others. Dear God, help us to look for people around us who need encouragement. Thank you, Lord, for the many who help during difficult times, those who show Your love to the hurting, who do everything possible to make life better for the brokenhearted. Father, help us to encourage one another today.