A year and a day ago, nine church-goers were killed in Charleston, South Carolina. Six days ago, 49 people were gunned down in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
On Saturday, Presbyterians gathered for the opening plenary session of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the PresbyterianChurch (U.S.A.) remembered those events before taking up their first item of business.
“Our peace has been ripped apart by an act of mass violence,” said Heath Rada, Moderator of the 221st assembly. “It tore at our hearts as we are reminded of too many shootings and too many victims.”
Donnie Woods, general presbyter of Charleston Atlantic Presbytery, and Dan Williams, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Central Florida, opened with a call to prayer and witness, lighting three candles – one for the victims in Charleston and Orlando, one for the countless lives ended too soon by gun violence, and one for a “world free from violence and hate.”
“We light these candles to honor their lives [and] the thousands more – families, neighbors and friends – whose lives also have been shattered by violence and loss,” Williams said, “and to acknowledge in confession and sorrow the loss of life still to come as public violence in our nation continues unchecked.”
A prayer litany was led by Terry McCrae Hill, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Portland, Wajdi Said from the Portland Muslim Community and Eliana Maxim, associate executive presbyter of Seattle Presbytery.
Said prayed: “Lead us to the straight path of all the prophets … Incline [us] towards peace, and justice and trust in God, for the Lord is one that hears and knows all things. And the servants of God – the most compassionate, the most gracious – are those who walk on the Earth in humility, and when we address them, we say, ‘Peace.’”
Asking “how long, Lord,” Maxim prayed for “peace where there is no peace,” saying, “In the wake of public violence that should be impossible to contemplate and yet has become all too common in our experience, open our eyes, and break open our hearts, and strengthen us to build your kin-dom where there is a welcome for all.”
The litany was accompanied with verses from songs by well-known Presbyterian hymn writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. Her hymn in memory of Charleston’s victims, “They Came to Read the Bible,” includes the line, “We grieve a wounded culture where fear and terror thrive, where some hate others for their race and guns are glorified.”
A song Gillette wrote after the Orlando massacre, “To a Place of Celebration,” grieves the loss of life and pleads for healing: “To a place of celebration filled with laughter, dancing, joy, came such violent devastation – one man’s efforts to destroy. God, we grieve for loved ones taken; we lament, ‘What can we do?’ Now, we’re feeling lost and shaken; heal our nation! Make us new!”
The service was organized by Robina Winbush, associate stated clerk for ecumenical relations; Laurie Kraus, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance; and Rick Ufford-Chase and Laurie Anderson, interfaith associates for theology of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.