The original Thanksgiving observance in 1621 was a celebration of the Pilgrim’s survival following a difficult winter during which 46 of 102 original colonists had perished. It was a time to reflect back on the great difficulty they had experienced and celebrate how their community was able to recover and endure.
Two weeks ago, on November 7th at 11:30pm, my phone rang. I listened as my wife informed me that there had been a shooting at Borderline, a popular country-themed restaurant and dance club that our two oldest children frequent most Wednesday evenings for College Night. She said our son Tyler was okay. He had escaped through the restaurant’s kitchen during a pause in the gunfire and was safe in a home nearby. That phone conversation, and the aftermath of events, turned out to be quite a wake-up call.
What unfolded that night horrified the nation and wreaked havoc on the psyche of those directly involved. As a parent, it was distressing to hear the terror in my son’s voice just minutes after experiencing a horrific scene, and it was painful to watch my children sink to their knees in tears as the news of a friend’s death at Borderline was confirmed. Even more difficult has been seeing the unbelievable sadness of grieving parents and families who have lost loved ones.
When senseless tragedies like this happen we all want answers. What kind of person would do something so evil? Why would God allow the lives of beautiful and talented young people to end so tragically? The same questions are asked with any tragedy, but unfortunately with mass killings of innocent people, there are no rational answers. Although there may not be answers, there are after effects.
Our faith in humanity can easily shatter when we see evil personified, but it can also be strengthened when greater good in the human spirit is revealed. The outpouring of kindhearted responses to the Borderline episode has far outshone the original selfish act that caused the suffering. Survivors have found solace in helping each other and the Borderline community has been deeply moved by the flood of support from across the nation. For many of the survivors, faith in God and humanity has been strengthened, rather than weakened, through this experience. Despite the darkness of an unthinkable tragedy, a brighter light has emerged in the aftermath.
My son has been asked many times over the past two weeks how he thinks this will affect his life. His response from the beginning has been to focus on the good and not the evil. The murderer, who appears to have been on a twisted suicide mission where he stole the lives innocent people to send a message to a world he hated, is not worthy of our attention. The victims and their families, the heroes who reacted with courage, and the Borderline community that was devastated, are where the focus should be moving forward.
We are one of the fortunate families. Our son Tyler was a survivor, and our middle daughter Ashley wasn’t at Borderline that night due to a car accident the prior day—an accident that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
As I reflect on the Thanksgiving holiday, and all that has happened over the past two weeks, I am profoundly grateful for many things, but especially that I have my son with me today. And, I’m thankful that even in times of catastrophe, we can find hope and become better individuals and communities with how we respond.
The Thousand Oaks area was stunned by what took place on November 7, but then as if the Borderline shooting wasn’t enough, the next day more adversity came to our community with massive wildfires that displaced thousands of people and destroyed hundreds of homes. It was a surreal time of apocalyptic devastation.
There are countless personal stories of how the good in society was poured out in the Borderline and wildfire aftermath. The local community immediately responded with vigils, benefits and individual expressions of support. These disasters were also national tragedies. Washington D.C. responded with visits from both Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke and President Trump, both of whom not only toured the fire damage, but took time to pay their respects to the Borderline victims and offer condolences to the families.
The President visited Northern California and then came to Ventura County to see the fire damage firsthand. On Saturday, I was at the memorial service for Borderline victim Justin Meek at California Lutheran University when my phone rang with a call from the White House. I thought it must be important so I left the service and answered my phone. “Can the Meek family meet with the President at Point Magu Naval Air Base after the service?” With the assistance of the Ventura County Sheriff’s department we were able to get the family to the base shortly before the President was to depart back to Washington, D.C.
Due to the last minute nature of the President’s California visit, it was only a small group from the Borderline incident that were able to meet with him. The group included Karen Helus, wife of Ventura County Sheriff Sgt. Ron Helus, who was killed attempting to stop the shooter, and their son Jordan, Roger and Laura Lynn Meek and their daughter Victoria Rose, parents and sister of Borderline victim Justin Meek, my son Tyler and I, and law enforcement officers who responded to the scene at Borderline. It was a very moving moment as President Trump hugged the families and took time to console them and talk about their loved ones.
The President and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy spent a half hour with us, taking time to greet and speak with every person present. The President showed great compassion and his words of encouragement were a real blessing to families who had just said goodbye to a son and brother, and to a husband and father. These are some of the most difficult moments for a President and usually occur out of the public eye. As President, Donald Trump has shown that he can be tough when situations call for it. He also showed us in that moment at Point Magu Naval Base, that he can be incredibly tenderhearted and considerate.
Then Monday Night Football became part of the Borderline survivors story. The Los Angeles Rams are based in Ventura County, not far from Borderline Bar and Grill. When the Rams/Chiefs Monday Night Football game was moved from Mexico to Los Angeles, the team reached out to Borderline families, and to first responders and firefighters from Ventura and Los Angeles Counties involved with the wildfires, offering free game tickets. The game was a much needed distraction from all the devastation of the past weeks—and it didn’t disappoint. The Rams won the historic game 54 to 51 in what was perhaps the best Monday Night Football showdown in history. Following the game, Rams quarterback Jared Goff and offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth joined the Borderline community on the field to sign game balls for families and take photos.
These are examples of the better side of humanity being revealed in tragedy, and there are many other stories taking place in similar ways with churches, local support groups, and individuals donating time and resources to meet needs in our community.
The Borderline family of young people may never be the same. Some will carry emotional or physical scars with them for the rest of their lives. But I have seen how these young people have come together, how they have leaned on each other and are creating lifelong bonds that will help them withstand challenges that lie ahead. The Borderline kids are a resilient bunch. They will be stronger individuals because of this, some may even find a greater life purpose through this experience—and we will all be a stronger community.
At Thanksgiving we pause to appreciate family and friends. This year I did so in a deeper way, realizing how fragile life is, and how important friendships are. The holiday season and Christmas can be difficult for families who lost loved ones. Throughout this season we should all remember families, who for the first time, will have an empty seat at their table.
What took place at Borderline two weeks ago can’t be undone or changed, but how we respond to bad circumstances is something that is in our control. The essence of Thanksgiving is adopting an attitude of appreciation for the good things in our lives. Although Borderline was tragic, in the aftermath we can be thankful for the great goodness, kindness, and generosity it awakened. The Borderline community can reflect back on the great difficulty they have experienced, and like the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, press ahead knowing that together they can recover and endure.