UCC pastor, Boston Marathon bombing survivor runs again on Easter Monday
Written by Connie N. Larkman April 17, 2014
Kathleen O’Neil and the Rev. Cheryl Kerr.
Easter is a time of resurrection, of spiritual reflection, rebirth and renewal. For the Rev. Cheryl Kerr, who calls the south Boston area home, those concepts will fuel her determination on Easter Monday, when she lines up with 36,000 athletes to run the Boston Marathon, and finish it this time. It's something this mother of three young children says she needs to do to heal, as a commitment to a different future.
"What does new life look like? That's why I have to run it again," Kerr said. "We died a little bit last year and so, this year MUST happen to prove the Easter story — to prove that death cannot win over life. We MUST run if we are to be resurrected. I MUST run to show that violence and death is not the end of the story."
Kerr, pastor of Allin Congregational United Church of Christ in Dedham, Mass., decided to run a marathon at a young age. In 2013, she was running to raise money for the Girl Scouts when she became one of the 5,700 runners in Boston who had to stop just short of the finish line, after bombs on Boylston Street turned the course into a war zone. During this Holy Week, as she readies to run again, Kerr draws parallels — writing her Easter sermon, preparing for the day that follows. To get past the two explosions just seconds apart in Copley Square, which killed three people, injured more than 260 supporters, scarred one of Boston's most revered celebrations, and left her worried about her husband, Itamar, and kids Grace, Ethan and Gabriel, who planned to be waiting for her as she finished.
"I was there, running the course, about 1.5 miles from the finish line. What I saw, though did not yet comprehend, was that transition from life to death in the faces of the folks on the sidelines as they went from cheering and applauding to staring at their cell phones or disappearing all together. I saw the expression on the faces of the security guards change from purposeful support to anguish. I saw my fellow runners drop back one at a time as phones began ringing and word spread. And then, the aftermath. What had happened? Were there other bombs yet to go off? Were we safe?
"The feelings I had after being told to stop at 24.8 miles are hard to explain. I really don't remember feeling any guilt and anger then. I was exhausted. I was so happy to have finally heard that my family was all right (as was the family of Kathleen O'Neil, who was running with me). All that I recall was that we were told to go home. That the race was over. So, I guess in shock, that's what we did."
It's taken Kerr, an Andover Newton Theological School graduate, time to process. She has struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and she seized up at a neighborhood race last year, expecting that if she crossed the finish line something awful would happen to her family. While her fears have mostly subsided, her fortitude has not.
"On April 21, just days after the one-year anniversary of this tragedy, we will indeed run again," Kerr said. "This is the race for which this town has been planning since minutes after the race was shut down one year ago. The 118th Boston Marathon will be a beacon of light and hope, both remembering the lives lost while representing the entire town's choice to live rather than die."
Kerr's three children, Grace, Ethan and Gabriel.
On Easter Monday, Patriot's Day in Boston, Kerr will have a UCC cheering section at the 118th Boston Marathon. The Rev. Laura Everett, UCC minister and executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, is one of several of Kerr's colleagues who will be waiting at the finish line with peanut butter sandwiches to stand with her. "Cheryl is deeply imbedded in the community she serves," said Everett. "I am proud to call her a fellow pastor in the United Church of Christ. She has navigated her own trauma and grief with humanity and pastoral wisdom. And she has been taking good care of her people. I am praying hard for her this Easter."
This Easter season, the Rev. Cheryl Kerr is challenging us, as a people, to look for something more. A day of action, not of remembrance.
"If we are going to run and finish this race, we need to commit to the changes that are a part of new life. We need to be different — different people who celebrate and VALUE the love and unconditional generosity of spirit that has been a huge part of what caused all but three bombing victims to live. We need to commit to peace so these acts of terror don't happen again. We need to pray for our enemies rather than going to war against them. We need to remind each other constantly through divine grace that we are God's beloved children with whom he is well pleased. We need to hug the stranger and have faith for those who cannot have faith in themselves. We need to commit to learning about our differences and valuing them. In short, when we, as a city and as a nation, go to bed on Monday evening, I pray we realize that that finish line is really only the beginning of our commitment to peace through love."
Editor's note: Rev. Cheryl Kerr completed the 118th Boston Marathon in 5 hours, 3 minutes. Supporters lining the route helped her overcome the heat, offered water and hugs to break through a wall at mile 9, fueled her with peanut butter sandwiches and encouragement to get her to mile 16 where her family's silly t-shirts lifted her spirits. Kerr said one of the signs she saw in the final miles read 'when your legs are too tired run with your heart' and "I am sure that it was my heart that got me to the end."