17 empty school desks stand outside Sherborn church, a year after Parkland shooting

"Behind every political issue is a human story, and this one is a human tragedy."

The memorial in honor of the 17 people killed at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla. last year stands outside a Sherborn church.
The memorial in honor of the 17 people killed at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year stands outside a Sherborn church. –Courtesy of Unitarian Universalist Area Church at First Parish in Sherborn

The 17 names were meaningfully chosen, says Rev. Nathan Detering.

Alyssa, Scott, Martin, Nicholas, Aaron, Jaime, Chris, Luke, Cara, Gina, Joaquin, Alaina, Meadow, Helena, Alex, Carmen, and Peter.

“Every single name was chosen with preciousness and such intention by a parent or guardian … and that’s what breaks my heart: to think about the stories behind those names,” said Detering, a father of two and senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Area Church at First Parish Sherborn.

So too was it decided then that only the first names of people killed in the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a year ago Thursday would grace a solemn tribute in their memory displayed outside the church’s steeple: 17 empty school desks on an empty lawn.

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The memorial, which will remain displayed through the weekend, is intended to not only honor the victims who lost their lives in one of the country’s deadliest school shootings, but also to elevate a human component sometimes lost in political fervor and changing headlines, according to Detering.

“Behind every political issue is a human story, and this one is a human tragedy,” he told Boston.com Thursday.

On Feb. 14, 2018, a 19-year-old former student walked into the Florida high school and killed 17 students and school staff members and injured 17 others. The alleged gunman is currently awaiting trial, and prosecutors are seeking to impose the death penalty.

The Sherborn display, which was unveiled at a ceremony after church services Sunday, serves to remember the lives, stories, and spirits of each of the victims, Detering said. The desks, dispersed in front of the South Main Street congregation, are the products of the church’s desire to show a “visceral, sort of embodied response” that would bring the impact of the tragedy home, he said.

“Something about seeing the 17 desks lined up … it felt like immediately the right thing to do in a stark, calming way,” he said.

As of Thursday morning, the church had received positive responses despite the politically-charged national debate on gun violence that reignited in the shooting’s wake, according to Detering.

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Many people were simply grateful that such a horrific event had not been forgotten, he said.

“(The memorial) talks about what happened and that (was) my hope,” Detering said. “We’ve done a lot of work in our congregation about this issue and we have a lot of people in different places about it in our community. … But beneath all of those politics are human stories.

“My job as a minister is to help us not lose that,” he added.

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