Last week, on Tuesday, August 20, 2013, Michael Brandon Hill, 20, walked into an elementary school armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition. The elementary school was the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia.
Hill fired only six shots.
No one died that day. No one was even injured.
Because in the front office of the school, that troubled young man met Antoinette Tuff.
And Antoinette Tuff loved him into laying down his weapon and surrendering to the police.
But if you ask her, it was God’s doing.
Antoinette Tuff: A Vessel for God
Yes, Antionette Tuff was one of three school staff who had received training for handling potentially dangerous situations.
However, she was not even supposed to be in that place at that time. Here’s a segment of her interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN, in which she says that God put her there to help:
When the situation took place, she handled it like a seasoned professional, as pointed out in an interview on CNN with Chris Voss, a former FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator.
Antoinette Tuff is not a hostage negotiator. She’s not even a counselor. She was working as a bookkeeper at the school.
How did a “regular person” with only basic level crisis management training manage to say and do all the right things to avert a major tragedy? How was she able to save dozens of lives and spare her community the terrible grief and pain that communities such as Columbine, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut have faced and endured?
Her own answer: God guided her.
Here are two excerpts from her interview with Anderson Cooper:
Anderson Cooper: Did you know . . . How did you know what to say to him? How did you know the right things to say?
Antoinette Tuff: Well, to be honest with you, I didn’t. While I was there and she [911 operator Kendra McCray] was talking and he [the shooter] was saying things to me, I was just praying in my spirit, I was praying on the inside of myself, and saying, “God, what do I say now? What do I do now?” I just kept saying that on the inside because I knew that I had no words to say. And I knew I was terrified!
And later in the interview:
Anderson Cooper: What do you think the lesson in this is for people? What do you want people to take away from this?
Antoinette Tuff: To know that God is real. To know that it wasn’t me. It was nothing I did that was so special.
AC: You don’t feel you’re special? Do you not feel like you’re a hero?
AT: (pauses) No, not really. I mean, I feel like I helped somebody in need; that God was able to use me, and it was an honor to be able to be used. I feel like I was in the right place, and God needed me to be there to be a vessel for him.
Being a vessel for God
Perhaps Ms. Tuff, who is a devoted Christian, had in the back of her mind the words Jesus spoke to his disciples about their coming struggles:
You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matthew 10:18–20)
And yet, Jesus spent many, many hours teaching his disciples and training them for the task ahead of them. Being a vessel for God does not mean just sitting back and letting God do all the work. It means learning, growing, preparing ourselves for the tasks God has in mind for us.
Antoinette Tuff was the right person in the right place at the right time. That’s because she had done the work of preparing herself to be a vessel of God. Yes, she had taken some crisis management training. And what she learned probably did help her to talk Michael Brandon Hill out of executing his planned massacre.
She had also learned the lessons of faith and of devotion to God in her church—from the Bible, from her pastor and his wife. She had not only opened herself up to God’s Spirit, but had also equipped herself with the tools of understanding and faith that God would need in her so that she could serve as a vessel for God in that situation.
If we are to be vessels for God, we must equip ourselves more and more fully so that God can do greater and greater things through us. We can do this by developing ourselves:
- Practically, with the knowledge and skill to get things done in this world
- Socially, with thoughtfulness and concern to relate well to our fellow human beings
- Spiritually, with the deeper insight and love God offers both personally and in the sacred scriptures of all the great religions
In short, we can equip ourselves to be vessels of God by continually learning, growing, and traveling on our spiritual path.
Antoinette Tuff shows God’s love
There is one thing above all others that we must both receive from God and express to others in order to be vessels for God:
Yes, Antoinette Tuff said all the right things to talk Mr. Hill out of going ahead with his planned mass murder and suicide.
But more than that, she loved him. She respected him. She listened to him. That genuine, heartfelt love for a troubled, tortured young man comes through especially in the final minutes of his encounter with her in the front office of the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy.
Here is the audio of the 911 call recording that encounter:
Hill said that nobody loved him. Tuff assured him that she loved him. Hill said that nobody listened to him. Tuff pointed out that she was listening to him. She spoke to him as a human being to a human being, sharing her own pain and her own struggles, showing empathy for him in his pain and struggle, and assuring him that he was loved, that his life had meaning.
That, ultimately, is what moved him to lay down his weapons and surrender to the police.
Yes, saying the right thing is critically important in such life-and-death situations. There is no substitute for training professional hostage negotiators and “regular people” alike in how to handle dangerous and desperate people.
Yet there is something even more important—something that can never be trained into us. We must choose it for ourselves, and live it in our lives.
What saved the children and staff of that elementary school, the policemen swarming outside, the community, and the nation from yet another tragedy was the power of God’s love working through a human vessel who was prepared, ready, and willing to do God’s will, and to show God’s love to a troubled young man armed with an assault rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, and the mistaken belief that he had nothing to live for.