As authorities continue their investigation into Thursday’s shooting rampage that left 14 people dead and 21 wounded in San Bernardino, Calif., local pastors are holding prayer vigils and preparing for a weekend of worship and tears. Several churches and interfaith organizations in and around the community held vigils throughout the day and evening on Thursday with additional services and gatherings continuing through the weekend.
“In Psalm 13 the psalmist cries out, 'How long, O LORD?’” says the Rev. Marilyn Gamm, Presbyterian Mission Agency Board chair and transitional executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Riverside, which includes the San Bernardino area. "How long do our communities have to continue being traumatized and sent into a spiral of senseless grief and pain by these mass shootings, O God?”
"And not only have the national news-making massacres rocked our San Bernardino and Redlands communities this week, but the daily and weekly ‘smaller’ shootings that receive little or no attention in so many urban areas around our country,” she says of broader concerns about violence in the U.S., especially gun violence. "It feels like evil is winning, and it’s hard not to feel helpless. Yet as a person of faith, my hope remains in the God who made heaven and earth, and who I believe is weeping with us in our grief and in our fear. Indeed, I believe God’s weeping with us is being manifested in the phenomenal outpouring of prayers, expressions of concern, care and support that have been pouring in to us from around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the country."
Authorities and pastors in San Bernardino say emotions continue to run high as the community comes to grips with the shootings along with questions over motive. Media coverage of prayer vigils has sparked prayer shaming on social media with many arguing that prayer won’t change the outcome. The Rev. Sandy Tice, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in San Bernardino, says some people get the wrong idea when it comes to prayer during a crisis/tragedy.
“I don’t think we pray believing the world will be cheery and perfect. Prayer, in my view, is an act of defiance in a situation like this. It’s a way of saying ‘no’. Prayer won’t stop things like this,” she said. “Neither do the best-laid plans of government and law enforcement officials.”
Tice says there has been a lot of personal contact within her congregation as people, frightened for loves ones, check in.
“There is a longing for us to be together and touch something hopeful when a traumatic event happens,” she adds. “I think there’s always been darkness in the human heart and the world is a dangerous place. We know that we are vulnerable. I think we turn to prayer because something in us knows that it should not be like this.”
While counseling her congregation during this time, Tice is preparing for Sunday’s sermon and the right words to say.
“Advent is a season of longing for peace on earth among other things. We proclaim that God dwells in the world as it actually is, not what we wish it would be,” she said. “We will sing together on Sunday, not just the cheery songs to escape the violence, but touch on the astonishing truth that God comes to us in our places of deepest need and no evil can extinguish that.”
Tice says God can help the community get through the difficult process of forgiveness in tragedies like this.
“Refusing to forgive poisons our own heart and makes us part of the problem, not the healing,” she said. “We choose to lean toward forgiveness, even if we can’t do it freely, we lean in that direction because we long to be forgiving people who dwell in a world where there is healing, wholeness and redemption.”
The Rev. Trina Zelle, executive director and national organizer for the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA), says her responses to the shooting changed as each new detail emerged—especially as it dealt with the well-being of developmentally disabilities persons, for whom PHEWA advocates. What did not change for her was “the searing awareness that there have been more mass shootings in our nation than days of the year thus far—that is to say, we are experiencing more than one mass shooting a day.”
“I believe in the power of prayer and stand witness to the many times that my own life has been transformed by its efficacy,” she says. “However, I do not believe that prayer is to be used as a substitute for the hard work of identifying problems and working for solutions.”
“It is hard in these times of bewildering violence to hold on to this Advent story of a baby that comes to change the world,” read a statement and prayer from PC(USA) leaders on Tuesday. “The change we see in the world appears to be more senseless violence. And yet the very important ministry we have as Presbyterians is to continue to seek an end to violence as we work for that world that God wants to be realized among us.”
The PC(USA) maintains a web page dedicated to community action and worship resources offering faithful responses to gun violence.
The Presbyterian Peacemaking Fellowship has partnered with other organization to produce the film TRIGGER: The Ripple Effect of Gun Violence, which shares the stories of individuals that encounter gun violence in various sectors of our communities: parents, children and siblings of victims, school teachers, trauma surgeons, law enforcement, legislators, pastors and grief counselors.