When St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Miami Beach gathered on Sunday, nine of its families were missing from the pews.
Twelve families belonging to that Florida congregation live at Champlain Towers South, the 12-story condominium in Surfside that suddenly and tragically collapsed last week, but only three of them are accounted for. Only three of those families joined with the rest of the church, praying and hoping for the return of the other nine.
Those families are just a few of many who are not yet found following the deadly collapse. With 11 people now confirmed dead, more than 150 others remain lost: a retired Filipina immigrant, a Jewish widower who had lost both parents to COVID-19, a devout Catholic woman from Cuba, a distinguished plastic surgeon, the father of a 12-year-old girl. Friends, family, and neighbors. People who never imagined the danger that would befall them.
That’s how tragedy strikes: unexpectedly. It’s always possible, sometimes imminent, and that can drive us to paralyzing anxiety or to unrestrained hedonism. It lurks behind normalcy and hangs over pleasure.
“How can God allow bad things to happen to good people?” It is a question we all wrestle with. Atheists cling to it as a disproof of God, and it nags the Christian’s mind when hypothetical tragedy becomes too real, sometimes threatening to undo him with doubt. Much ink has been spilled over whether God can exist amid the so-called “problem of evil,” but no matter what response that question yields, the constant of evil and tragedy remain.
Christians, who often respond to tragedy a bit differently than the watching world, are no more immune from calamity and sorrow than their unbelieving neighbors, of course. Sometimes it seems the opposite is true, with the righteous mourning as the wicked prosper: One man accepts his post-accident fate of paralysis as another man accrues his second DUI, and a pair of faithful parents mourn infertility year after year at the same time a reckless young woman enters a Planned Parenthood to dispose of her unborn child.
Uprightness doesn’t ensure health, wealth, and happiness, and it is all too easy to lose sight of the light in the darkness — the darkness of a pandemic, of tyranny, of cancer, of loneliness, and of confusion. Death and tragedy strike everyone, ready or not.
“It is the same for all,” the preacher says of the tragedy of death in Ecclesiastes, “since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. … This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all.”
When “this same event” of death comes calling, we must reflect on the deep human need for church. Amid a sudden condominium collapse that devastates a community and rattles the country, one of the most beautiful scenes is a body of believers gathering together to worship the God who gives and takes away and to pray for their missing members.
Is there a more powerful testament to those battling with the “problem of evil” than to watch a congregation stand together amid unfathomable tragedy, continuing to praise the God of life even when he allows death? Rather than blame God for the loss of their members, they ask in faith for him to bring them home.
Family and friends are a gift, but as life is passing, so are they. There’s no certainty that when trouble comes, we’ll have our kindred to lean on. Think about the widower of Champlain Towers South, who lost both parents to a virus that swept through in a flash — his wife, father, mother, and then self, gone.
The church, however, remains. Communities of faith not only offer comfort and charity — after the Miami condos came down, for instance, Orthodox Jews who make up a volunteer medical service assisted other first responders in offering attention to patients and their families, and a Latino Catholic community held a vigil for victims’ families — but more importantly, local churches offer abiding spiritual families.
For every death of old age within the church, the cry of a newborn signals new life. And though members come and go, the New Testament church that God established will never die, even when family and friends do. “On this rock I will build my church,” Jesus declared, as recorded in Matthew’s gospel, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Amen and amen.
Christ is our only hope in life and death. Until he returns in a triumph that will dull all our earthly pains, we gather with others of his people to remind each other of that glorious truth and to praise him together. With eyes lifted heavenward, the three families that remain watch and pray for the return of the other nine. Lord, have mercy.