Thousands gather to mourn at the heart of Oxford

Thousands of residents and folks from all over the state showed up in downtown Oxford for a candlelight vigil. Photo by J. Hanlon.

By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
While many area churches and nearby communities held vigils of their own, the Oxford Downtown Development Authority and Oxford Bank quickly organized a candlelight vigil for the entire community to mourn the loss of the tragedy at Oxford High, by closing down M-24 and Burdick Street Friday night.
A portable stage was set at the center of the intersection and thousands filled the streets. Team O turned out in full Wildcat gear; current students and alumni proudly sported letterman jackets from all graduating years.
M-24 was full as far down as the Oxford 7 theater. With limited parking downtown, school busses shuttled people in from Meijer, The Legacy Center, Seymour Lake Park and Friendship Park in Lake Orion.
Oxford Bank gave out 5,000 candles. At 7 p.m., the candles were lit and church bells rang across Michigan for four minutes of silent prayer. Thoughts were with 17-year-old Madisyn Baldwin, 17-year-old Justin Shilling, 16-year-old Tate Myre and 14-year-old Hana St. Juliana.
“To the families that lost their loved ones: there are no words that any of us have,” Kelly Westbrook, the Oxford DDA director, said. “The only thing that I can say is we as a community, we are here for you. And that is whenever you need us. We will gather. We will continue to pray for your healing.”
Sheriff Mike Bouchard said he was proud of the community for pulling together. “You have poured out your heart and soul to make people feel better in an incredibly impossible and difficult time,” he said.
Then he had a message to those making follow-on threats: “We will find you and we will punish you. You will not terrorize this community,” he said emphatically. “We are Oxford, we are Oakland County, and no one will shatter that love and peace this community deserves. They will be held accountable.”
With the community still so raw and on-edge, there was a moment of panic when shouting was heard coming around the corner, down West Burdick Street. Fearing the worst, part of the crowd near the center of the intersection screamed and stampeded south, toward Centennial Park. Some entered the buildings to try to get away.
County Executive Dave Coulter, who had been speaking, was quick to reassure everyone it was a false alarm and that someone had just fainted. The upset crowd hesitantly retraced their steps, while separated loved ones called out to each other, comforting each other as they reunited.
A couple more people were knocked down during the panic, adding to the chaos. Coulter called for an ambulance and attempted to calm everyone down. Oxford Fire Department Chief Peter Scholz later said everyone was fine and no one had to be transported to the hospital.
Bouchard said it is common for someone to faint at big events like this.
Some reported more confusion from the back of the crowd, where they could not tell what was going on because it was difficult to hear the speakers.
To help soothe the situation, singer Modestina Call performed “Ave Maria” earlier than scheduled. Her beautiful voice calmed and quieted the crowd.
The ceremony continued with Coulter picking up where he left off. “I was about to say that we may be wondering what happens next,” he said. “I guess we got an example, we’re still on edge, we’re still nervous, we’re still scared. How do we even begin to recover and heal from such a devastating event?”
He quoted David, of David and Goliath, that there may be pain in the night, but joy comes in the morning. “It may seem impossible now on this night of unspeakable pain that anything like joy could be in our future. But I have faith that there is a peace that comes despite our limited understanding of it. And when it does, understand this: we will most certainly be changed. Our normal has been shattered. But we will learn to live in a new normal.”
State Senator Rosemary Bayer said that she never could have imagined such a tragedy, and as a mom, could not begin to imagine the unbearable pain of this week. “I want to thank you for being here,” she said, “because the only way we’re all going to get through this is to lean on each other. That’s what we have. We have Oxford, we have all of us. And together we are going to get through this. I love you all.”
“Do not hesitate,” was the answer U.S. Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin repeated for how to move forward. Just as the teachers, students and first responders did not hesitate to do as they were trained, do not hesitate to reach out to the people in your life and allow your kids to have moments of joy, she said. “This community is a rare, rare thing. I represent a lot of people. Not every community could do what this community has done. You have not hesitated, and I want you to lead. Lead in your households, lead in your community, lead in your school. Do not hesitate.”
Governor Gretchen Whitmer said she came not as an office-holder, but as a mom and a fellow Michigander. “We’ve lived through one of the worst weeks in Michigan history. But this week we’ve also seen some of the best in one another,” she said, noting the brave actions of our children, teachers, doctors and nurses, and faith leaders.
“You have the love of every Michigander who calls this great state home. Together, we are all Wildcats tonight, and we are Oxford Strong.” She said it would be rational to respond with hatred, blame or hopelessness, but it is love that heals trauma.
Chaplain Dave Gerber, a longtime Oxford resident, wants this town to be remembered as the home of the original radio Lone Ranger, Brace Beemer, and as the Gravel Capital of the world. “We will not be defined by the tragedy,” he said. “We will be defined by the people that are standing next to us today. We are not Christians or Muslims or Jews or Atheists or Hindus or Buddhists, we’re not Republicans or Democrats, we’re not progressives, we’re not conservatives, we are Wildcats, Oxford!”
Gerber went on to quote a line from the film “Hellboy”: ‘In the absence of light, darkness prevails. There are things that go bump in the night, make no mistake about that. And we are the ones who bump back.’
Gerber said he is thankful that first responders from departments across the region, “bumped back.” And teachers and especially students bumped back in a big way. “You bumped back and you were heroes. You pulled people out of harm’s way, you put yourself in harm’s way.”
Using an example of Jesus, he said “Oxford will not bump back in anger. We will bump back in hope and light and love, but be assured,” Gerber looked straight into the news cameras, “if you are watching this around the country, Oxford will bump back and it will be beautiful and healing. Oxford, we are Wildcats.”
People began chanting, “We are Oxford” as Pastor Matt Schuler, of Journey Lutheran Church, took the mic. “LET’S GO, OXFORD!” he replied, continuing the chant. “I cried that out, I cried that out, to a football team, on their way to a rematch. They went, they won, and now we’ve lost.”
Jesus took on the weight of our pain and suffering when he was hanging on the cross, Schuler said. “If there is someone who knows exactly what you are going through, it is Jesus.”
As he was dying, Jesus prayed quoting the Psalms. “In the Psalms, every emotion is on display. Fear. Loneliness. Confusion. Guilt. Anger. Wrath. Vengeance. Every emotion. Justice. Mercy. Love. Peace. Hope. Tonight, I want to invite you to open yourself and your emotions, all of them, to a God who is Immanuel, God with us, God with you.”
Schuler prayed for each victim.
“Our wounds are still open,” he said, with anguish. “They are raw. Our pain is fresh and real.”
He praised the heroism of the students. “You dragged each other into classrooms. You flipped tables. You locked doors. You huddled and you hid. Tonight, we cannot go back. We can only go forward. This is the beginning, where we live by your example, students, where we live by your example of love and sacrifice for each other.”
He concluded by imploring everyone to reach out. “Make an opening in your life. Invite someone in. Tell someone ‘you are not alone’ . . . Don’t be alone. We are here together.”


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