Guest Commentary

Sister Therese Bangert: Finding mercy and grace in tragedy

Detective sings 'Amazing Grace' at funeral for KCK police Detective Brad Lancaster

Police Detective Danon Vaughn performed a moving version of "Amazing Grace" with words about fallen police officers at the funeral of Kansas City, Kan., police Detective Brad Lancaster on Saturday, May 14, 2016, at Children's Mercy Park. Lancaster
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Police Detective Danon Vaughn performed a moving version of "Amazing Grace" with words about fallen police officers at the funeral of Kansas City, Kan., police Detective Brad Lancaster on Saturday, May 14, 2016, at Children's Mercy Park. Lancaster

It began when I moved to Kansas City, Kan., in August of 1996. A friend in the community suggested that I join the police and fire chaplains. I took the training and began carrying the on-call beeper for 48 hours a month. I went to unfamiliar places — homicide scenes, car accidents, suicides. I trusted the grace that took me there and began an incredible learning experience.

So when the text came through on May 9, 2016, that a police officer had been shot and that any chaplain who was available should report to police headquarters, I reported. First word was that Detective Brad Lancaster had been shot but that he was talking and was going into surgery, leaving the impression with the women transcribers with whom I kept vigil that he would be OK.

Lancaster had been teasing them only a couple of hours before. How could this be happening?

So here we are 11 months later. As The Star reported on March 15, the detective’s killer, Curtis Ayers, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

I want to invite the community to reflect with me on what happened leading up to that sentencing and to that day. Lancaster’s widow, Jamie, met with District Attorney Mark Dupree. She agreed to Ayers’ willingness to plead guilty and accept life in prison without parole. In doing this she also agreed not to pursue the death penalty.

Lancaster’s family and his family in blue filled the courtroom for the sentencing. His mother had a statement read. The police department’s leadership made a statement in which they focused totally on the loss of their team member, whom they loved and respected. The depth of that loss was firmly expressed. The goodness of Detective Lancaster was also firmly expressed.

The district attorney followed the sentencing with a statement to the community presenting the idea that the violence in the area is the responsibility of all who live there. He challenged all to be part of reducing the violence. The leadership of the police department spoke with the same tone.

I believe that for those who paid attention, this was a teaching moment. Out of the deep pain of the loss of a husband, father, son and a colleague came a moment of affirmation for his life. Most know that Ayers and his family will have their own journey ahead. Life in prison without parole is a very severe punishment.

The family in blue with Jamie Lancaster witnessed a way — a way of truth, not of hate and brutal words. I believe this response was led by Kansas City, Kan., Police Chief Terry Zeigler and his majors. Zeigler had proclaimed at the funeral, “There’s no doubt that Brad Lancaster was a hero, not because of how he died but because of how he chose to live his life.”

Police see things every day that bruise their spirits. The loss of Detective Lancaster and of Capt. Robert Melton, also killed in the line of duty last summer, bruised their hearts deeply. They have witnessed to us a way to respond. Nobody signs up for this witness.

Just as the ripples spread far and wide from Curtis Ayers’ actions, so, too, do the ripples of the actions and the words of Jamie Lancaster and the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department cover this community. In the wise words of Maya Angelou, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Sister Therese Bangert is social justice coordinator for Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. She lives in Kansas City, Kan.

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