Texas tragedy: UMC offers prayer, support

S.C. church that was armed robbery victim holds candlelight vigil for Texas families

By Jessica Brodie

GOOSE CREEK—A South Carolina United Methodist church that itself was a victim of an armed robbery five years ago held a candlelight vigil last month to pray for the families of a tragic mass shooting in rural Texas.

On Nov. 5, Devin Patrick Kelley carried out the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. He killed 26 people, including an unborn child. Other victims ranged from age 18 months to 72. A pregnant woman, the shooter’s grandmother-in-law and the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter were among the dead. Kelley was said to be mentally unstable and obsessed with a domestic dispute involving his wife.

Across the nation, Christians gathered to offer prayer, love and support in the aftermath. St. James UMC, Goose Creek, was one of them.

According to pastor the Rev. Suzanne Walker, St. James held a candlelight vigil Nov. 9.

“Twenty people gathered, after braving the cold rain and wind, to pray for the families of the victims and the community of Sutherland Springs, Texas,” Walker said. “The liturgy reflected the grief of yet another instance of extreme gun violence, the call to commitment to act for the well-being of people and places of sacredness and innocence, as well as reflecting the light of Jesus Christ in a dark world.”

“I Will Sing,” by Dan Moen, was the evening’s anthem. Walker said the words reflect the pain and yet the hope found in God’s grace: “But I don't know what to say,
and I don't know where to start,
but as you give the grace,
with all that's in my heart, I will sing, yes, I will praise, even in my darkest hour.”

On Jan. 18, 2012, on an ordinary Wednesday around 8 p.m. at St. James, a man with a shotgun on his shoulder entered the narthex, where the church choir was practicing, and ordered everybody to get on the floor and hand over their cash, wallets, purses and cell phones. He fled moments later. No one was hurt in the trauma, but Choir Director Vance Ross, who was directing practice that evening, told the Advocate the ordeal was terrifying.

After, St. James members chose to seek God in their recovery. Five years later, they’re still mindful of how they faithfully respond to all situations, whether ones they face or situations other congregations experience.

“We kept in mind that while we do pray for the victims and community in Texas, we held the vigil for ourselves. We will not cower in fear but trust God and worship God, flying in the face of fear,” Walker said. “The armed robbery back in 2012 is still pretty fresh for some of our members, and I as the pastor wanted them to know we haven't forgotten them, and that we will respond in a way that can be an avenue for peace in their hearts, as well as offering as much physical safety as is possible.”

Security plans and practical help

St. James wasn’t the only church to offer prayer and other support for the Sutherland Springs victims and survivors. The United Methodist connection sprang into action after the tragedy. According to a United Methodist News Service story by Sam Hodges, “A United Methodist Balm for Sutherland Springs,” nearby Floresville UMC in the Rio Texas Conference has been trying to offer practical help for the survivors, from prayer blankets to pro bono attorneys and accountants to help affected families grapple with estate and burial issues. Resurrection UMC, San Antonio, offered space at its cemetery should any of the families need a place to bury a loved one. Others have helped with funds, mission teams and free caskets.

Other churches, more aware of gun violence after this and other recent church shootings, are attending active shooter trainings and crafting security plans.

In South Carolina, Bethel UMC, Chester, held a Wednesday night program Nov. 15, featuring the sheriff, who spoke on “Safety and Security on Church Premises,” plus helped the church create a plan of action with tips on making their grounds more secure.

They invited all of the other local churches in the Chester Ministerial Association to join them for this presentation.

“Extending this invitation came about when last week there was an incident at the First Baptist Church, one block away from Bethel, where a church member was approached by someone who put a gun to her head and asked for her purse,” said the Rev. Carole Walters, Bethel’s pastor. “Fortunately, the member was not hurt and the gunman was caught by the police. However, the whole community is shaken by this.”

Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, general secretary of the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society, called on Christians to step up and address the problem of gun violence.

“This violence continues to desecrate churches, neighborhoods, schools, concerts, movie theaters and clubs. Our communities are being ripped apart by gun violence,” Henry-Crowe said. “As heartsick as this makes us, we cannot and must not throw up our hands in defeat. To do nothing to combat the evils of gun violence is irresponsible and contradictory to Christ’s call to be peacemakers.”

She said mental health is frequently a factor in gun violence and mass shootings, and United Methodists can do a number of things to address this:

  • Advocate for lifting the ban preventing the Centers for Disease Control from researching gun violence as a public health issue.
  • Advocate for expanded access to quality mental health services.
  • Advocate for expanded background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
  • Advocate for laws that keep deadly weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers.
  • Read the United Methodist Book of Resolutions No. 3428 (“Our Call to End Gun Violence”) for ideas.
  • Pray for God’s wisdom and healing for communities and leaders.
  • Speak with others about gun violence and what our communities can do to prevent it.

She urged people to call their members of Congress today at 202-224-3121.

“May God be with First Baptist Church and the community of Sutherland Springs,” Henry-Crowe said. “May healing come for all who suffer from the unrelenting terror of gun violence in the United States.”

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