All 75 were nestled in their beds, visions of Vegemite sandwiches dancing in their heads. When all of the sudden, with a shriek and a shrill, the fire alarms went off and they awoke … screaming their heads off.
The last night of Year Seven camp. We’d had a great, tiring day, and after some night activities designed to dilute their stores of energy, the sirens went off. When the alarm went off, the lights came on, adrenaline coursed through my body and I immediately opened my dorm room door to see what was happening with the boys. Some were sitting up in their beds, groggily trying to erase the pain of the bright lights in their eyes. Others—somehow—were actually sleeping through, as 1000 decibels shredded the air.
As I tried to hurry them from their beds and out the door, the alarm stopped, the lights went out and all that could be heard was the sounds of various boys moaning about bad dreams. And soon, after we made sure that it was just a false alarm, the boys were back snoring softly.
Except, that is, for one young man who was sitting up in his bed, staring through the slats in the blinds. His whimper was a restrained scream held tightly behind closed lips. I approached him and as he trembled, he asked me a question:
‘Are you a teacher?’
‘Yes’, I said, hoping that enough adrenaline had leached from my veins to calm my voice. ‘Go back to sleep. It was the fire alarm—a false alarm. Something must have set it off.’
He started to sigh deeply, his voice falling back to relief, losing its initial edge of hysteria. ‘Thank God’, he whispered to me. ‘I thought it was a terrorist attack.’ (Perhaps his parents might want to scale back the television time.)
I attempted to soothe his nerves, and eventually he fell back into nice, comfortable dreams. But now my brain was awake and awash with thoughts about what goes on in the lives of these kids. They live in a world where something as innocuous as a false alarm transforms into the next Twin Towers, Sydney hostage situation or Charlie Hebdo. I suppose it is no different than the fallout shelters that were built 60 years ago, when practice drills were designed to get people into the dark basements packed with decades-worth of food as fast as possible, in the hope that they could survive that ‘thing’ that goes bump in the night.
How does the church respond to fear? Does it enlarge it? Ignore it? Defend it? Use it? What is our response to a world that craves to crawl back into the dark and hopes that it can survive this seemingly overwhelming terror?
How does the church respond to frightened children, cowering in their beds as they wonder if there really is
a God who is protecting them?
What do we have to say?
Reid Matthias is school pastor at Faith Lutheran College, Plainland, Queensland.