faith in action

So other families won't know my grief

Mary Ward, a United Methodist from Virginia, lost her son, Adam, to gun violence. She recently spoke about the experience of losing her son and finding her voice in advocacy.

Church and Society hosted a retreat for survivors and families of gun violence. Mary Ward spoke at the beginning of the retreat and shared her story. We’ve printed it here in full, as prepared for delivery.

This has been a long and emotional day for all of us. The common bond that we share as we’ve told our stories and gotten to know one another today is the loss of a loved one through gun violence. Lives that held so much promise and we mourn each loss equally.

I’ve been asked to share with you my story, only because I have worked with Jeania Ree, Rebecca, Bryan, and Donna to plan this retreat. And my story is one of starting from the unbearable pain of losing my precious son, Adam, to my role in advocacy, trying to find my voice to make a difference so that other families won’t have to know the grief we’ve known. Speaking in public has always been extremely difficult for me — not only am I uncomfortable with it but it’s a true phobia. The very fact that I’ve done it tells me that God has his hand in all of this.

First, I’ll speak about my family. My husband, Buddy and I have been blessed to have three terrific children.

Most, if not all of you, have met my son Jay who flew from Switzerland to be with me for this retreat to offer his support. I’m so very proud of him and grateful for his presence.

My daughter, my oldest child, is married and has two amazing little girls, Sophie and Olivia, and lives in Washington state. She is a wonderful daughter and mother.

The baby of the family is Adam. Only 20 months separated Sarah and Jay, but Adam was born four years later, so it seemed like he was around longer because the other two had already gone off to college while he was still living at home. He then went to college only 45 minutes from our house, and when he graduated from college he moved back home and became a basement dweller, so we were able to enjoy his company for two more years.

Adam was a special person. He considered everyone his friend and wanted everybody to be as happy as he was, even if it meant reverting back to his middle school humor. Adam had a soft spot for those who were hurting or feeling lonely. He was a champion for the underdog, so to speak, and I think this was because of the health problems he faced as a young child, which left him with a hearing loss and a speech impediment. He took a lot of ribbing from classmates, and when he finally overcame the speech problem, he was a different person. When Adam was in high school I had some fairly major medical concerns, and he became my protector and court jester, always trying to make me laugh and keep my spirits up. His laughter was infectious, and his smile would light up the room. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention his awesome hugs!

After graduation from Virginia Tech with a degree in communications, Adam became an early morning cameraman. But his dream was to be a sportscaster. He made it in front of the camera more than any cameraman I’ve ever seen.

In his job, he and his reporter primarily covered stories of local interest and they would dress him up in ridiculous costumes for the camera, and he loved it! He wasn’t a sportscaster, but at least he was getting in front of the camera even if it was only for laughs. In many of the pictures, Adam is seen as they dressed him up for Halloween or the ballet. Nothing was too silly for him to do on camera.

Those that he interviewed often became lifelong friends. Such was the case with the CPA they interviewed during tax season. Adam spoke so highly of him that we started having our taxes done at his place of business and when Adam passed away he literally locked his door and came to our home with tears streaming down his face.

My memories of my three kids growing up together are all good, but then, on the early morning of Aug. 26, 2015, it all came crashing down.

At the time, Adam was working at WDBJ7, a local TV station as a morning cameraman. He and his reporter, Alison Parker, were conducting a live interview at Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia when shots rang out and the camera appeared to drop to the ground, and they quickly cut back to the station. My husband was watching as it happened.

He began frantically calling Adam’s cellphone and then the TV station. They knew nothing yet but said they would call back as soon as they heard anything. It was during that time that I woke up. Buddy tried to explain what had happened but I had trouble understanding. Then finally I got it. It was probably 20 minutes or so before they called back, but it seemed like hours. When the phone finally rang, I realized that our baby was gone.

Adam was only 27 years old, engaged to be married and looking forward to what the future had in store. He loved children and couldn’t wait to be a father. He was a wonderful son. He called us every day to make sure that we were still kicking—he called this our “wellness check!” During any sporting event, he was as close as the phone, always calling his dad to talk about a play that had just occurred. People often mention what a fine young man he was, but to us, he was Adam, a wonderful son, brother, fiancé and friend.

We lost Adam, and our lives were turned upside down, changed forever, and we didn’t even know what to do. But from this horribly public tragedy we endured, an amazing thing happened. We were immediately surrounded by the love, support and prayers of people from all over the country and even abroad. Our pastor, Rev. Rob Lough all but took up residence at our house. He knew what we needed even before we knew and he was so willing to be there for us through all that we were to endure, not only through the next few days as arrangements were made, and finally the funeral. But also through the months that followed, through all of our pain and questions of “Why our Adam?”

Again, my son Jay was ready and willing to help with all of the details that needed to be addressed. So many decisions to be made and so much paperwork. My husband and I couldn’t even begin to think of these things, let alone make rational decisions about them. Also, my daughter Sarah, though caring for a 15-month old child and once again pregnant, offered all of her support to help us through this time of tears and grief, all the while dealing with her own emotions and feelings of anguish.

When I first started to think about what I would say, I told a pretty graphic story of what happened the day we lost Adam. But then, as I thought more about it, I realized that this story is one of where my faith is leading me and the hope for a better, safer future for my grandchildren. That’s not to say that I don’t miss Adam every single day, but each time I hear of another shooting I know that more families are enduring the horrible pain that we were forced to deal with, and I know it simply can’t go on. I feel compelled to try to do something, anything to make a positive difference.

At first, I tried talking to legislators on the state and federal level, including two meetings with Congressman Bob Goodlatte, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and also the congressional representative from my district. I walked away feeling discouraged and empty.

Then I met with local people in Roanoke who are a part of the anti-gun violence movement, but it just didn’t seem to be the right fit for me.

Finally, I went to Rob, our go-to pastor, and friend and told him what I was struggling with and asked if he had any suggestions. He wanted to give it some thought before answering and got back with me shortly thereafter. He’d come up with a few ideas, but the one that we both liked the best was to reach out to the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. They already had the knowledge and resources that would be necessary for me to make that difference.

Rob made the call and Rev. Jeania Ree Moore, director of Civil and Human Rights for the GBCS, returned his call. My husband and I were out west visiting our daughter and her family during the Christmas Season of 2016. She called again before our return because she was eager to set up a meeting. When we returned home, Rob gave me the exciting news and Jeania Ree, Rebecca Cole and Beth Reilly arranged to make the four-hour drive to Daleville to meet with Rob and me. Rob treated us to a taste of Daleville’s finest cuisine at Three Little Pigs Barbecue and from the moment we met I knew it was the right move; part of God’s plan again playing out. Our first meeting included both of my children who joined our initial group through Skype. The meeting went very well, and the next gathering was scheduled for the following month in Washington at the United Methodist Church GBCS on Capitol Hill. At first, we just brainstormed about what we hoped to accomplish from our meetings, and it was during one of these sessions that we decided to hold a retreat. Also, during one of the first meetings Bryan Miller of Heeding God’s Call joined our group, and I have thoroughly enjoyed working with him.

During my time between these first monthly meetings, I had my first speaking gig. Rob invited clergy from across our district to a meeting at a local restaurant. Just as I began to speak the food was being served, so I was mildly distracted, and even though I had extensive notes, I totally bombed but it was a small and very kind audience, plus Rob picked up where I left off. I think that everyone went away from the restaurant full and with a general idea of what I was trying to say.

Also between meetings, I participated in phone banking, which was organized by the Regional DC/MD/VA Interfaith Network and Moms Demand Action. We made phone calls encouraging Virginia residents to contact Senator Warner and urge him to vote against the mandated Concealed Carry Reciprocity Bill. I then went back to D.C. to meet with Sen. Warner to ask him to vote against this dangerous bill that would allow weak gun laws to prevail in other states. It was during that meeting that Warner did in fact state that he would oppose the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Bill. The room was packed with others like myself who were supporting opposition to this bill. I had met with two of his aides the day before, and because of that previous contact, which was arranged by Jeania Ree and Rebecca, the senator’s aides enabled me to meet personally with Sen. Warner after the group meeting.

With each of our GBCS meetings, we came up with more and more ideas of who we could get involved in our retreat to make it the best possible experience for the participants. Our hope is that if the group wants, we can continue to meet, or at least stay in touch, and bring about change through advocacy. In addition, it would be our hope that our retreat could become a template of sorts that could be used by people of faith in other areas of the country who wish to advocate for stricter gun laws and a safer America.

In December, I had the opportunity to come to the Vigil for the fifth anniversary of Sandy Hook where 26 people were murdered, most of them precious children who had not yet had a chance at life and the grieving community that was left behind. My husband and I stood holding a picture of Adam and called out his name as hundreds packed into the church to pay tribute to those who’ve been lost to gun violence. A musician played a song that he’d actually written after my Adam and Alison were killed at Smith Mountain Lake. It was entitled “How Many More.”

On the local level, my UMC in Daleville, St. Mark’s, is now forming interest groups that meet on a regular basis and there was enough interest in forming a group to address the gun violence issue. Our first move has been to draft letters to local, state and federal officials that call for stricter common-sense gun laws, and more funding for school safety and for mental health issues. We’ve only had one meeting, so I’m excited to see what other things we’ll be able to accomplish through God’s help and guidance.

As plans for our retreat were still being finalized, we began calling UMC district offices and others in a position to reach out to those of you who would be interested in attending in the D.C. area and surrounding states.

I want to take this time to thank Jeania Ree, Rebecca, Bryan, and Donna for all of their hard work for over a year now on this project. I also want to thank all of the others who are involved in making this happen, and I’m excited for what can come from this gathering. I also thank you all for participating in our retreat. Tomorrow we take our concerns to our representatives on the Hill and hand-deliver our postcards with our personal messages on each one of them. If we keep knocking at that door, I believe that sooner or later it will open and we’ll see the change we all desperately demand.

Until the Parkland Kids, I’d never really thought about the fact that the horror of school shootings and active shooter drills is all this generation has ever known. That’s so shameful, and I know that we’re better than that. I came to DC a few Saturdays ago and joined in the March for our Lives. It was incredibly inspiring to watch as these young people took the lead and dared to do and say what we should have been doing all along. Calling out our government and demanding safer schools, safer communities, and a safer country by demanding a change in gun laws. There couldn’t be a better time for us, people of faith, to take a stand and follow this example set by our children.