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Pursuing Peace in Lewiston

Lewiston, Maine, a community of less than 40,000, has a small-town feel. It’s become a welcoming city of refuge for internationals fleeing violence, and a haven for hard-working people desiring a tight-knit community. At Hope House’s Family Support Center diverse neighbors find much in common. All want a safe place to raise their families. All seek peace. To those who resettle here, the quiet town of Lewiston with its surrounding wooded hills offers hope and peace. (Hear "I See a Day" with Jan on keyboard/vocals, Zac on guitar, Bruce, vocal/engineer.)

But this last fall of 2023, Lewiston’s peace was shaken. During one of the worst years on record for mass shootings in the U.S. – a staggering 650 mass shootings in 2023 – Lewiston became an unlikely town to join those numbers. On October 25, a gunman killed 18 people and wounded another 13, targeting a bowling alley and a restaurant in Lewiston. The attack on Lewiston was the deadliest in the country in 2023, and one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, according to data maintained by the Gun Violence Archive. Shock was the first emotion we felt when our son, Noah, called us from South Korea where he and his family serve with Youth With a Mission, and told us of the shooting in our town. We were working that Wednesday evening, October 25, in Lewiston at the Family Support Center we run. Noah had heard news of Maine in South Korea, and was concerned for our safety and that of the town where he had lived some years before. An event was transpiring that would continue to send shock waves far and wide. In retrospect, it is not surprising that it was our son halfway around the world who alerted us that there was a shooter at large in Lewiston. We had heard numerous sirens go by but had not understood, nor would ever have imagined, what was happening just up the road from us. Noah's gentle concern woke us up spiritually as well, as it often has. When we got off the phone we prayed! Then we turned on the news.

Seeing the news on TV brought waves of shock and grief. Our granddaughter, Emily, (above, right)messaged us that her friend and beloved coworker, Tricia Asselin(above, left) was working at the bowling alley that night when the shooting took place. Soon after, we learned her friend was among the victims…and that she didn’t make it. She had been shot while on her phone, calling for help. Another of Emily’s heroic friends had also taken action and helped others escape out a back door of the bowling alley, so that he and others survived. Emily, along with her friends and their families so affected, are still recovering from the terror and losses of that night. 

As our widespread family followed the events transpiring, our daughter, Sarah, in Oregon was especially horrified that this was the same bowling alley that held sweet memories of fun with her sisters, Selina, Rachel, and Bora. Yet overnight it had become a site of unthinkable tragedy. Sarah poignantly expressed her sorrow for Lewiston, where she had lived for some years, in a touching post:

"My heart is so heavy. The violence and death has hit home this time. I've always had to explain where I'm from, usually having to reference Boston 3 hours south before recognition enters the person's eyes. Lewiston is small. The Basilica's bell tower chimes on the hour, the County Kitchen bakery makes Canal Street smell like bread late at night, and seemingly all the buildings were made of red brick 100+ years ago. We shouldn't make the international news for mass murder. I can't believe we're coming up on 24 hours and there's no end to this chaos. This photo is of my sisters and I at Sparetime Bowling Alley 14 years ago. I moved away 8 years ago, but I spent the first 26 years of my life in Lewiston-Auburn, my family is still there, and I just visited a couple months ago. I wish I was there now with everyone, but at the same time am grateful for my distance and safety. Please join us in your thoughts and prayers." Sarah Willson-Dix

Other responses of concern and prayers for Lewiston poured into Hope House from around the globe, as news spread to many who had either helped out at our center or been helped by it at some time over the years (ie, incoming volunteer teams, or international friends who had returned to home countries). The town of Lewiston had made an impact on countless lives. The shooting seemed somehow personal to so many.

After the shooting, 3 anxious days followed. All of Androscoggin County was on high alert with the gunman still at large. The first day after the shooting, we maintained a presence at the center (white building, left side of College St., above) to reassure the neighborhood, but eventually realized no one was even out on the streets. Even the unhoused often on the center’s front porch were nowhere to be seen. Lewiston became a ghost town for 3 days. Our food program was temporarily halted as none of the area stores which donate food to our center were open, due to the shelter-in-place mandate. An entire town seemed shut down, traumatized, and more vulnerable without the consolation of coming together. Then the gunman was found shot, apparently by suicide. He was a military reservist, a longtime resident of Maine from a rural farming family. Our hearts broke for his family who, among others, had alerted authorities with their concerns ahead of the tragedy. Our hearts broke for the gunman who had apparently struggled with mental illness, needlessly taking his own life as well as so many others. Now the death toll rose to 19.

Somehow, out of the tragedy, we all grew a little more compassionate for one another. In the words of the Psalms, we grew more determined to “seek peace and pursue it.” Several prayer vigils were held following the violence, with the gathering we attended drawing thousands. (See the photo of over 2000 standing outside the Basilica, as the cathedral was filled with another 2500.) Many walking from nearby Bates College passed by our center, sweeping us up, along with many in the neighborhood, in a solemn parade that moved past our center to the nearby Basilica for the One Lewiston Community Vigil of October 29. It featured eight faith leaders in town, representing Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews. They led the town in praying and pursuing peace together, and included Imam Salah of the Lisbon Mosque, Rabbi Sruli Dresner and his wife Lisa who sang a beautiful Psalm, a letter of comfort from Pope Francis to Lewiston (and read aloud by Bishop Deeley). Our friend, Greg Boardman, Jessie Boardman, and Tyler Pulk ended the vigil with a beautiful performance of Amazing Grace on cello and violin, as thousands sang those hopeful lyrics together. After the vigil, many gathered to share food and comfort with each other in a large hall, and it warmed our hearts to be included in this time as well. 

The faiths of Lewiston point to a Merciful Creator who is able to bring beauty from ashes, hearing all who cry out to Him, restoring hope to go on. “One Lewiston” and “Lewiston Strong” became mottos still widely seen on signs and T-shirts. It was touching to see the deaf community at the vigil, grieving their deaf friends who were shot when their bowling league happened to be bowling the night of the tragedy. Kevin Bohlin, the Deaf Community Leader, taught all the vigil’s attendees the sign for “love”. And love was surely expressed that night. Waiting to enter the Basilica, we greeted and hugged dear friends from various immigrant communities in town. We were hugged by Bates College students who were from all over, but who identified with their adopted town in this time of need. We were blessed by the kindness of our friend, Kaileigh, who had saved us seats. As former mayor of Lewiston, Kaileigh Tara’s leadership had helped Lewiston survive the infamous Ice Storm of ’98. This last fall she has had such an encouraging presence at our center, befriending and supporting many. It is not surprising that she has leant her leadership to our stricken town yet again by serving the town’s most vulnerable.

In December, just weeks after the shooting, a powerful storm hit Maine, causing days and days of widespread power outages during below-freezing temps. More than 400,000 lost power statewide. Whole streets in Lewiston were flooded, and apartment buildings were evacuated where some of our center’s families live. Bruce had just helped move Fabian's family into their own much-awaited apartment when they were moved to a shelter due to flooding on their street. But they have a strong faith in God, and they soon were back in their own place again. (Fabian is a diplomat from Congo and a great friend who volunteered to man our center's welcome desk throughout the fall, using his wide linguistic knowledge.) Our power and that of our son, Zac’s, family was out for 3 days, but thankfully not the center's power as we are hosting a single mom and her family in the host building there. We had our fireplace to keep us and our kittens warm. (See pic of 6 cute kitties soon to be adopted… you see, there was this cat we sheltered during Hurricane Lee who then stuck around…anyway, want a kitten?) The storm winds were strong...one of our large windows was literally blown out, and our neighbor’s large tree was blown down, crushing their car. Fallen trees and large branches littered our whole state’s landscape. Electric linemen from neighboring states kindly poured into Maine during the week before Christmas, to help clean up downed trees. It was reminiscent of the big Ice Storm, though some said the damage was worse with this recent storm. Volunteers stepped up to host and feed helpers from “away”, and to warm up cold neighbors. It seems that challenging times serve to highlight the compassion of people. And hardship tests our resolve, motivates us to live out what we believe. We are forced to ask ourselves if we really choose to be in this together, One Lewiston, Lewiston Strong. Peace is a choice we make. It’s corporate, but it must begin within each of us. We must individually choose to love God AND love our neighbor, even when it means offering our warm home, our food, our time to volunteer. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “As far as it concerns YOU, live at peace.”

Many faiths point to God as the Source of Peace. The Qur’an says, “He is God, other than whom there is no God, the King, the Holy, the Peace, the Defender, the Guardian, the Mighty, the Omnipotent, the Supreme.” A common reliance on the God of Peace is now building bridges of peace among families of Lewiston. The opening prayers and songs at our center’s weekly markets welcome many languages and types of expression. (See some great music videos from this last year’s open mic market times). The presence of our center, serving the town for 30 years now, is enabling area neighbors to forge relationships. Many volunteer to help with the assistance offered at the center, and become good friends with other volunteers as they pursue peace together. Thanksgiving was a little more poignant this year, having come through a difficult fall. A few of our dear friends gathered with us and Bruce’s mom at our home (see pic of friends on our porch, and 95yr.old mom with her walker). Together we offered thanks to God for all He had brought us through, and for the help of many friends. 

We so appreciate the teams of new or returning friends who came to assist us for various events, markets, and other service projects, including teams from Northeastern University led by Cru (on our homepage see videos that a team created from their time in Maine), Wellesley College, Church of the Living Word in Bowdoin (many teams!),and Chinese Bible Church of Greater Boston (3 teams!). We are grateful to Maine Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot-Ross, Senator Peggy Rotundo, and State Representative Margaret Craven for their spring visit to a Free Market Day to hear our neighbors’ concerns about the housing crisis (see video). We appreciate the faithfulness of our regular supporting individuals and churches, like Prince of Peace Parish that has for years helped us with heating oil, as well as those who felt led to meet special needs…the Knights of Columbus who raised funds for a new ultrasound machine for our clinic, the Chinese Bible Church that gave generously to cover added seasonal needs, and Fayette Baptist that is also assisting with heating oil for a family we are hosting from Central African Republic.

We (Bruce and Jan) celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary this last May at a party during a Free Market at our center. It seemed fitting that our neighborhood friends were a part of the event. In June we rejoiced at the wedding of our daughter, Sarah, to Daniel Dix. (Hear "You Have Found the One", our wedding song for the couple, recorded with Noah on drums.) We spent a few days with other family gathering for the wedding in Oregon. Although Noah’s wife, Bora, and the kids could not come, Noah flew in from South Korea and hosted us at the YWAM base in beautiful Salem, Oregon. Our daughter, Rachel, and her husband, Norbi, flew in from Hungary, with our grandson, Joshua, from England. After a short honeymoon, Sarah and Daniel flew to Maine to rejoice with family who had not been able to come to the wedding, like Zac and Selina and their family, and Bruce’s mom. Other family have also visited, and God has been so gracious to us to have enabled these precious and rare gatherings. We pray that you, and your family (perhaps spread out as well) know God’s comfort and His “peace that passes understanding” as we all embark on the upcoming year of 2024. Whatever it holds, He knows and goes before us to prepare the way. May He keep you in perfect peace, as your mind is stayed on Him.
With love and gratitude,  
Bruce & Jan, and Hope House 
(207) 577-1165