Can you imagine being part of a community that experienced a shocking tragedy? Can you fathom the emotions you would feel knowing that one person was the perpetrator of the events? Now, can you see yourself including this person in a memorial to the victims of the violence?

Back in the spring of 2007,  one courageous Virginia Tech student took this rare step of honoring the gunman who killed 32 others and wounded 25 at the school before committing suicide. Katelynn Johnson, a senior sociology-psychology major, added a stone to represent the gunman in a memorial for those who died during the April 16 rampage.

“My family did not raise me to do what is popular. They raised me to do what is morally right.”

As reported by the Associated Press, Johnson wrote a letter to the Collegiate Times as the person who placed a stone in the memorial for Cho (the gunman). She wrote, “My family did not raise me to do what is popular. They raised me to do what is morally right. We did not lose only 32 students and faculty members that day; we lost 33 lives.”

“Cowardice asks the question—is it safe? Expediency asks the question—is it politic? Vanity asks the question—is it popular? But conscience asks the question—is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”

~ Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m grateful to Ms. Johnson for standing apart from others who took the popular and safe paths. Though I cannot grasp what could have led Cho to do what he did, my soul knows that he too suffered. I believe that when we choose to omit the perpetrators of violence from our prayers we lose part of our humanity. We all commit acts of violence in our lives–whether in harshly uttered words, righteous judgments, tightly-held resentments, or withdrawal of our love and support. While I know many would argue with me that these “minor” acts have no comparison to outright murder and physical violence, I disagree. There may be differing levels, yet an unloving act is an unloving act, no matter it’s size or scope.

For us to create a different world than that which we’ve brought into being today, we must forgo the popular and the safe route. We must believe, speak, and act out of love. . . no matter how irrational that love may seem. We must have the courage to be moral leaders, like Ms. Johnson chose to do. We must choose to follow our better nature, that part of ourselves that knows that no matter what it may look like on the surface, we are one. We must see that even in our pain, our judgment, our confusion, or our fear, we can choose a higher road. For it is this road of love, courage, compassion, and truth that will lead us to a new tomorrow, toward a peaceful, mutually-beneficial co-existence that we’ve been yearning for since we came into this world.