Tragedy and disaster have the peculiar ability to produce a backdrop upon which common people can become unexpected heroes. 300 soldiers at Thermopylae hold off wave after wave of Persians; they’re slaughtered in their duty and become immortal. Fire fighters run into flaming skyscrapers, knowing they may never come out, but trying to pull one—just one—more person from the choking flames. And when two lunatics detonate a pair of bombs at the Boston Marathon, ordinary folk perform deeds that make the stuff of statues and paintings.
There was Carlos Arredondo, who was photographed in a cowboy hat, pinching the exposed artery shut on a man who had both his legs torn off by the first blast. By his side were those who ran towards the explosions instead of away from them, fighting their survival instinct for the sake of those injured. Under the spotlight of this insanity, some people showed they were made of nothing less than refined steel and pure gold.
Amidst all the chaos of the event, there was one such story that slipped largely beneath the public’s notice. It wasn’t especially brave or remarkably heroic—it was just simple compassion. I myself would not have heard of it if the man involved had not been from my home state of Alaska.
To recap a long story, Brent Cunningham had previously tried to qualify for the Boston Marathon twice; on his third and final attempt, he barely squeaked out the necessary time. After finally making it to the Boston Marathon, he crossed the race finish line a half hour before the bombs went off. He received his finisher’s medal—an achievement few will ever accomplish, and one that he would almost certainly never replicate, and he was on his way back to his hotel when he heard the explosions.
Brent and his wife came across a young woman sitting on a curb sobbing. Laura Wellington had been a mere half mile from the finish line when the race officials stopped the race because of the blasts. Her family had been near the finish line, and she had just gotten word they weren’t injured, and she had collapsed onto the curb in overwhelmed tears. Brent and his wife approached her and offered her the only comfort they had: kind words and a blanket around her shoulders. As they got up to leave, he asked her if she had finished the race. She said no. Brent took his finishing medal off and slipped it over Laura’s head. Then he walked away, without even getting her name. If it wasn’t for the vast reach of social media and attempts by Laura to track him down, he would have never been heard from again.
Brent Cunningham is the Young Life director for Sitka, Alaska. Alaska is not the most ‘refined’ state, and Sitka is barely noteworthy, even for Alaskans; anybody who has actually been there will attest to it. It is a tiny, water-locked fishing town, home to little else than a couple fisheries and a refueling port for passing cruise ships. When I was told, “Did you hear about that guy from Sitka at the Boston Marathon?” my immediate reaction was, “How on earth did a guy from Sitka end up at the Boston Marathon?” Sitka is such a small, nondescript place—barely a smudge on the map. There’s a reason that the film The Proposal was set in Sitka, but filmed in Maryland.
It’s fitting that one of the least recognized stories of kindness and gentleness during the recent tragedy comes from a man in a desolate little town people barely know. Jesus himself had a similar background—to the point that John records two instances that highlight Jesus’ less than humble origins. The first instance is when the Apostle Nathaniel is told about Jesus by his brother Phillip, and sarcastically responds, “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?” The Pharisees were even harsher with their judgment; Nazareth was a single city—they apply their contempt to the entire region when they remark, “Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
It wouldn’t be pressing the contextual bounds of Scripture to suppose that Jesus’ reputation as a Galilean plagued him throughout his ministry. Many folks probably considered it a great joke. After all, what of worth did come from Galilee—let alone Nazareth? It was barely a smudge on the map. Jesus was a hick carpenter; how could he be preaching to all those educated city folk in Jerusalem?
But this hick carpenter turned water into wine and preached a Gospel of love that the world had never heard before. He healed men and women of their blindness and affliction. And he gave away his Boston Marathon medal only moments after receiving it, for no reason other than he thought it would bring some small measure of comfort to a scared, hurting young woman.
The love of Christ transcends the borders of regional stigma. It surpasses the horrendous tragedies that shake our faith. The love of Christ even overcomes our limits of self, so that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. So it was that Jesus Christ manifested himself to the Ethiopian eunuch and revealed himself to the dying in Calcutta. When he saw one of his daughters sobbing on a curb in Boston, he appeared to her in the same manner.
Christ is made known through his human emissaries; he loves through his people. It could be that every simple act of kindness is a direct extension of the love of the Father, whether through the common grace and goodness of human nature, or through the relentless, explicit love of Christ. It could be that every time a Christian chooses love and mercy in the name of Christ, they are allowing themselves to be nailed to a cross beside their Savior.
It could be that every time a man from a no-name town in a no-name state offers up the only comfort he has, he is, for a brief moment, expressing the infinite love of God to his children.