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July 25, 2017 by

The Rabbi in the ER

To enter the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., you must first be screened by security.

The entryway is darker than that of many museums. To the right begins the journey through the hallowed spaces of history. But one important piece of history hangs on the wall in the entryway. It is a large photo of a young man in a uniform. The plaque beneath it reads:

While protecting visitors and colleagues, Special Police Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns was fatally shot on June 10, 2009, by an avowed anti-Semite, Holocaust denier, and racist. Officer Johns’s outgoing personality and generous spirit endeared him to all who entered this museum, which was created to confront the very hate that took his life. His sacrifice shall never be forgotten.

I was the Director of Spiritual Care at George Washington University Hospital when Stephen Tyrone Johns was brought into the emergency room. His life would end that day, and mine would never be the same.

The hospital chaplain who had received the call told me what had happened: an 88-year-old man dressed in a Confederate coat had walked up to the museum entrance. Officer Johns, seeing only an elderly man approaching, moved to open the door for him. The man pulled out a rifle he had hidden under his coat and opened fire. He shot Johns at close range. The museum’s other security guards immediately felled the perpetrator; I am not going to name him here, because I do not want to give him the attention he sought.

Officer Johns and the perpetrator were taken to George Washington University Hospital.

I was called to the emergency room to attend to Stephen’s wife, Zakiah, who had recently arrived. The waiting room was chaotic; in addition to two other chaplains, there were many hospital administrators, concerned about the patients and the hospital during this this high-attention incident. Meanwhile, Stephen and the perpetrator were in surgery side by side, attended by two different medical teams.

More of Stephen’s family and friends began to arrive, and the group was moved to a larger waiting room. We were joined by Pastor John McCoy, the leader of the Word of God Baptist Church in Southeast D.C. I introduced myself, and though he towered over my petite frame, it was clear we saw eye to eye. He took my hand and leaned toward me.

“I know you understand this kind of suffering, Rabbi. Your people and my people share a common history.”

“Yes, sadly, it’s true,” I said.

The room was filling up around us, the group encircling Zakiah as if they could protect her physically from the pain. A temporary calm settled over us. We waited.

The operating nurse assigned to our case came in. “I will be monitoring what is going on in the operating room with your loved one,” she said. “I will brief you from time to time. Should you have any questions, please have Rabbi Miller come and get me.”

As a hospital chaplain, I became the bridge between the operating room staff and the family in crisis. The nurse returned each hour to give us an update, but she had no consequential news.

After several hours, the nurse approached me and asked if I would follow her out of the waiting area. As I left, I could feel the air in the room change. In the corridor, she whispered, “I have to give the wife the ring and tell her that her husband didn’t make it. Can you come with me?” She squeezed my hand tensely. I could see that she wanted me to comfort her, too; this was new and disturbing territory for all of us.

The waiting room had become a makeshift sanctuary, containing hope and fear simultaneously within its partitioned walls. I glanced at Pastor McCoy and gave him a nod he instantly understood. I put a steadying hand on Zakiah’s back. The nurse placed the wedding band in Zakiah’s hands and gently said, “I’m sorry we couldn’t save him.”  Someone caught the widow as she fell to the floor in shock. Stephen and Zakiah Johns had been married for only a year.

Wails reverberated around the room; what had been a sanctuary became a place of despair. I allowed myself to cry as I thought about “Big John,” the gentle giant, the innocent victim. I heard Pastor McCoy call his congregation to worship.

“Let us pray. Hold hands. Gather us, Lord, in this time of unbearable grief. Help us to comfort each other as we say goodbye to our beloved brother Stephen.”

The nurse returned to lead us to the room where Stephen lay. A white sheet covered his body, but his face remained in view. The noises of grief had given way to quiet tears and murmured goodbyes. There was nothing else to do.

Only a few hours ago, they had rushed to assemble here, friends and family answering a distress call on a bright summer day. Now they dispersed slowly, reluctantly, newly minted mourners straggling down the corridors and out into the night.

Wandering back to the post-op room to collect my things, I bumped into one of the emergency surgeons. Our professional paths had crossed many times, so I could tell he had something he wanted to say. He stood in front of me, not letting me by, and stared into my eyes.

“Explain this to me, Rabbi. How does this happen? We saved the wrong man.”

The perpetrator, apparently, had survived his wounds. But what could I say to this physician, whose job it was to save human lives irrespective of their deeds?

“There is no answer,” I said. “You did the work you were trained to do. The rest is out of our hands.”

It had taken me years of study, prayer and experience, to know to speak these simple words—and to believe them. 


Rabbi Tamara Miller recently published her memoir, You Are the Book, of which this is the prologue. To learn more visit her website


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.