They’re some of the last words you ever want to hear uttered at a department store on Black Friday. They’re the kind of words that turn a loud, light-hearted rush for doorbusters into an eerily quiet, suddenly serious rush for the nearest exit.
My mom, wife, and mother-in-law arrived at the Younkers at Westroads Mall in Omaha, NE, at about 11:15 PM Thanksgiving Day for their midnight opening. Already a line had formed, which only lengthened considerably the longer we waited, but we were glad we were near the front. After a last minute phone call to my brother about a deal we thought we could look into for my mom and dad, the buzz reached its height as the doors were finally opened and we all, like hungry bees in search of flowers, rushed inside the store and made our way to our desired purchases of choice.
We had entered on the lower floor of the store, so we had to book it up the escalator to the luggage section. Samsonite luggage was, in some cases, marked down 65%. You could have cut the feverish pitch that hung in the air with a knife. After bitterly having to decide against the Samsonite purchase (we’d been told that luggage that have those four swivel wheels are very easily broken), we decided to split up. My wife and mother-in-law needed to check out the specials offered in the restroom, and my mom and I were going to make our way to the men’s section. Maneuvering our way through the check-out lines that had already begun to snake their way throughout the entire store, my mom and I finally arrived. After a quick walk through casual wear, we made our way over to their dress pants section. Kenneth Cole Reaction pants, regularly $65, were marked down to $29.95. Cha-ching! I quickly perused the racks and picked out several pairs that I thought might do the job.
It was then that some rapid movement from a group of people just beyond men’s formal wear caught my eye. They were really moving. I wondered if some new doorbuster sale had just opened up, and these determined shoppers were going to be first in line. I paused briefly to watch what I thought was holiday zeal reaching its peak before my very eyes. But then came those words. Two words that will take you from 60 to zero in about .02 seconds. “Shots fired!”
Like a herd of spooked antelope, people began running for their lives. Suddenly saving an additional 60% off already marked-down items took a plunge on our collective priority list. I looked over at my mom who was a few racks away, and without a word, we both instantly agreed that our shopping experience was over. We made our way to the back of men’s formal wear and crouched down behind a deeply discounted row of designer dress pants. We found ourselves beside a woman and her teenage daughter, her other daughter rushing over to meet them shortly thereafter. The girl’s mom, trying to stay calm herself, desperately tried to reassure her that everything would be OK, but tears and trembling quickly overtook her.
I whipped out my cell phone and dialed Laura. Praise God she answered right away. She and Mayte had been downstairs and, though nearly being trampled by the stampede towards the exit, had made it outside. I was greatly relieved. They were safe. I told her to stay outside and that we would call them later. I stuffed the phone back into my pocket and looked over at the family next to me. My mom had knelt down behind the woman and her distraught daughter and had put her arms around them both. My biggest fear was that we were going to start hearing things. Yelling. Screaming. Shooting. I was not sure I would be able to keep it together at that point. It’s in moments like these that you most desperately want to grab the remote control of life and put everything on pause, even for just a few minutes, in order to get a grasp on what in the world is going on. Unfortunately, you’re left acting on instinct.
I asked my mom and the family she was comforting if there was an exit close by. They didn’t think so. I looked down a few aisles toward the dressing rooms and saw that several people were standing and looking in the direction of where the frenzy had begun. The store was quiet. The music over the loud speaker had been cut. I figured since so many people were upright and looking around, it must be—at least in the immediate sense—safe to move. I told my mom and the family near us that I thought we’d be OK trying to move toward an exit. They agreed, and we separated. Leaving our cart and my carefully selected dress pants, my mom and I slinked over to the next section of clothing. My hopes were quickly dashed when someone sitting partially underneath a clothes rack informed us that the entire store was under lockdown. The doors were locked. No one was being allowed in or out. Well, so much for that idea.
Already rumors had begun to fly. Was it really a shooting? Wasn’t it just a fight? Had anyone actually heard gunshots? It was about then that a woman’s voice came over the speaker and very simply informed us that all was clear. She apologized for the scare and said she hoped that people would be able to continue shopping. Trying desperately to piece together what had happened from the comments whizzing around me and now this surprise announcement that everything was in fact OK, I figured that a simple fight had at some point gotten transformed in the minds of sleep-deprived shoppers into an all-out shooting which sparking a mass exodus from Younkers.
Well, now what do we do? Do we trust the announcement, or do we trust the general sense of fear that still hung thick throughout the store? Do we collect our items from where we left them and pay? Should we continue shopping? Maybe we should just forget the whole thing and go home. Somehow doorbusters had very suddenly lost the appeal that they had had over me just 15 minutes prior. My mom and I decided to get our cart, leave the pants—which I was in no state to even think about trying on—pay for the few things we had managed to snag, and get ourselves out of there.
What’s astonishing about an alleged random shooting at Younkers is not the fact that it could happen there and then to me on Black Friday. The astonishing thing is that it doesn’t happen more. What’s really amazing is that it hasn’t already happened to me. Every moment that passes in our lives in which some terrible atrocity doesn’t occur is an incredible gift of God’s unmerited grace. With all the pain and all the scars and all the messed up thinking that exists in this world—and let’s be honest—that exists in me—the fact that I don’t live a life of constant terror is absolutely jaw-dropping. In the world in which we live today, we should rightfully expect tragedy to be the norm, not the exception. And yet, for most, due to God’s benevolent providence, that is not so.
If you have ever lived through a boring, absolutely forgettable day, thank God for his kindness to you in sparing you from numberless horrors that could and should come your way. In a world that has rejected God and stiff-armed his Son, do not be shocked by terror. Be shocked by peace. Be amazed that God would be merciful at all on any scale to rebels like you and me. Stand dumbstruck that he would grant you and me any good thing whatsoever. Then cling to this good God with all your might in hope that he will carry you through each and every atrocity that does come your way.
Click here to read a local news report regarding the incident: “Disturbance leads to scare at Westroads Mall.“