Losing faith after tragedy strikes

I've written several solder-dies-in-Iraq stories, so I know it can be quite uncomfortable for a reporter to waltz into someone else's tragedy and capture the heart-wrenching details. Paul Schwartzman has written a beautiful story for the Washington Post about a father's care for his son after a horrible beating.

As midnight approaches, the father is where he was when the day began, sitting on the edge of his son's bed, peering into his unfocused eyes and misshapen mouth, rubbing his bare chest and scarred scalp. Checking his diaper. Making sure his boy is okay.

He is not okay. Ryan Diviney is 21 years old. For the past year, he has existed in what his doctors call a vegetative state, or "eyes-open coma," resulting from a horrific beating. He is awake but seemingly unaware. His father describes his son's existence as little more than that of a heart beating inside a body.

I wish I could embed this slideshow, but you'll have to click in to see some powerful images that show how religion definitely plays a role in this story. We see references to faith throughout the story but few specifics.

The Divineys faced a choice: Doctors could leave their son as he was, and he would most likely die, or they could remove part of his skull, which would let his brain swell. Either way, Ryan might not live more than a day or two. Ken and Sue told the doctor to remove the skull plate and summoned a priest to administer last rites.

A year later, on a frigid Saturday night on the anniversary of the attack, dozens of people stand on the Divineys' lawn, holding candles, sipping cider and praying for Ryan, who is inside, behind drawn shades, being hoisted from his wheelchair by an electronic lift. His mother calls it her son's swing.

You can see continued support from friends, including some sort of faith community, though it's unclear where it's coming from--their church?

The Divineys report on Ryan's progress on a Web site and a Facebook page that has more than 5,300 subscribers, including people who have cleaned their house, built a ramp for Ryan's wheelchair, dropped off meals and hosted fundraisers that have collected $30,000 to help pay their medical bills. Next year's tab is expected to exceed $500,000.

A prayer group formed, including Mary Mitchell, a stay-at-home mother who said she concluded that her destiny was to help the Divineys after Ken told her he might need to hire someone to help process paperwork and run errands.

"This is a God thing," Mitchell says, voice choking, after she drops off some medication. "God has placed me here." The prayer group organized the anniversary vigil for Ryan, inviting a minister who stood in the middle of a circle and spoke of God's power.

What kind of toll is this taking on the parents? Ken, at least, has had a crisis of faith. The reporter captured some great emotion here, though I'm still wondering what kind of faith the man had before the tragedy. What kind of church did he attend? Did his wife lose her faith? Does he think the prayer groups are obnoxious or helpful?

Inside, Ken sits next to his son's bed. He no longer attends church. He no longer believes in prayer or the notion that God has a larger plan. He has lost his faith.

"What kind of God would allow this to happen?" the father asks. "What kind of God wouldn't correct it?"

When tragedies strike, especially when someone harms another person, sometimes you'll see compelling stories of forgiveness, as Bobby pointed out earlier this week. This time, though, it appears that Ken is not interested in forgiveness.

Ken arrives at the courthouse, sits next to his daughter, and stares straight ahead as Robert Vantrease, Austin's father, apologizes to the court for his son's actions and promises to keep praying for Ryan's recovery. Then Austin Vantrease, in orange prison garb and shackles, apologizes and vows to "spend the remainder of my life as a model citizen."

...Ken describes Vantrease's parents as failures. He rejects Austin's apology and says he deserves 10 years in prison, and even that wouldn't be enough.

"My fantasy is to have two minutes in a locked room with a baseball bat," Ken tells the court. Austin, he promises, "won't come out in any worse condition than my son."

In the first row, Vantrease's mother lurches forward in her seat.

I don't want to diminish the story because it's a difficult one to write. However, a few more details about the family's faith could have provided a clearer picture between the prayerful supporters and the man who has lost his faith.

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