CH@T: Pastors organize gathering in response to school shootings

‘When there are no answers, prayer can offer a peace that surpasses understanding’

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A mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, last Tuesday, killed 19 students and two teachers. Leaders in Pittsboro held a vigil there Sunday, and on June 9 — next Thursday — faith leaders in Chatham County will host a prayer vigil in response to the tragedy. It’ll take place at 7 p.m. at Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church at 314 Great Ridge Parkway, Chapel Hill.

We speak with two of the vigil’s organizers, the Rev. Andrew Taylor-Troutman and the Rev. Brent Levy. Taylor-Troutman is pastor at Chapel in the Pines and Levy is pastor of The Local Church in Pittsboro.

The public is invited to the prayer vigil.

A common theme in the initial reaction to the shooting in Texas was, “Let’s not talk about thoughts and prayers, but real change.” Prayer, though … why is it still important?

LEVY: I completely understand the sentiment of “enough with thoughts and prayers.” For too long, politicians and others in power have used “thoughts and prayers” as a way to deflect responsibility and to keep real solutions at a distance. They’ve used prayer as moral cover. It’s been a way of feigning outrage amidst gross inaction as more and more people — especially kids — die at the hands of gun violence.

I mentioned on Sunday that it reminds me of the prophet Amos who, on behalf of God, said, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them…” (Amos 5:21–22a)

The first thing I did when I saw the news last Tuesday was pray, but it won’t be the only thing I do in response. At its best, prayer orients our action. It gives us the space to discern where God needs us, to feel the compassion that stirs us toward transformation, to channel our anger and frustration so we can move forward to work for substantive change with greater clarity, vision, and resolve.

It reminds me of the exchange that U2’s lead singer, Bono, described with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the throes of apartheid. Bono asked if it was hard to find time for prayer amidst all the important work he was doing to dismantle white supremacy and end the violent oppression there in South Africa. Archbishop Tutu quickly fired back, “How do you think we could do any of this work without prayer and meditation?”

TROUTMAN: I understand the frustration with inaction. Most of us want politicians and leaders to take proactive steps to prevent future tragedies. It enrages us to think that people in power merely pay lip service to the ongoing crisis of mass shootings. Isaiah decried mere thoughts and prayers as “people honoring me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13)

That said, when I have been at my lowest after the recent mass shootings, prayer has helped. In my grief and worry, anger and frustration, praying to the One who is Love has helped to beat back despair and its weaker cousin, cynicism. When there are no answers, prayer can offer “a peace that surpasses understanding,” (Philippians 4:6).

Despite their frustration with inaction, many people appreciate the prayers of others in times of crisis. It is comforting to know that people care about you. When faced with a serious diagnosis, few people would refuse medical treatment. And many would also request prayer. Action and prayer. Both/and, not either/or.

In the Book of Acts, Paul and Silas prayed after they had been thrown into prison. Suddenly, an earthquake shook the foundation of the prison and all the cells opened! The prisoners were freed! Perhaps many of us want prayer to have that kind of immediate, tangible impact …

But my experience teaches that there is not a direct relationship between what I pray for and what actually happens. I don’t think that means there was something wrong or insufficient with my prayers, such as a lack of faith. I have noticed, however, that prayer may make a difference over time and the change may occur in me. Gandhi claimed, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”

Praying for the mourners in Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, New York, I find that I look with more compassion upon other children at my sons’ elementary school and my fellow shoppers at the grocery store. I am less likely to judge by appearance, more likely to smile at a stranger. I pray for the broken-hearted and find my own heart opens a little wider.

Why is providing a public space to lament important for a community?

LEVY: Too often, much of our public outcry in situations of terror and heartache results in what I like to call “sparkler syndrome.” Like a sparkler at a Fourth of July celebration that burns hot, albeit briefly, and then quickly fizzles out, so too does our attention and energy in the wake of another incident of gun violence or another racist murder of a person of color or an unjust war in another part of the world.

But communal lament holds us accountable. It gives our collective grief some staying power that we might hear the cries of our neighbors near and far and be reminded when we are seduced back to our “normal” rhythms and patterns that all is still not as it should be. Public space to lament keeps us focused.

Moreover, communal lament reminds us that we’re not alone. Amidst the noise, deflections, and whataboutism from those in power that seek to divide, confuse and stoke fear, public lament in community reveals and reinforces a common people with a common purpose that is able to rise above the noise.

Finally, communal lament points us toward hope. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann put it, “Psalms of lament are powerful expressions of the experience of disorientation. They express the pain, grief, dismay and anger that life is not good. They also refuse to settle for things as they are, and so they assert hope.”

Pastors use the Prophet Isaiah’s words about “beating swords into plowshares.” What meaning does that phrase have for you in the wake of another school shooting and so much hate and rage and division?

LEVY: I hope that we use the prophet’s words in the same way that Isaiah used them. In the midst of rampant corruption, injustice, and idolatry, Isaiah is pointing to God’s promised day in which weapons that destroy communities are transformed into tools to feed and care for community. Notice that it’s not just a removal of weapons, but it’s a total transformation. That’s what Isaiah is inviting people to see and live out: a radical revisioning toward a complete reordering of our common life together — one in which fierce independence is transformed into cooperation, skepticism is transformed into curiosity, idolatry is transformed into sacrifice for the common good, and fear is transformed into love.

In the wake of another school shooting and so much hate, rage, and division, these words name the reality not only of the work to be done with regard to courageous conversations that seek understanding and new ways forward, nurturing relationship, advocating for common-sense legislation, and holding our elected leaders to account, but it also point to where we’re headed. It gives us the hope that motivates us to keep working for that day — because we know how the story ends. We have our heading, and it’s what’s demanded of us as people of faith.

TROUTMAN: In the 8th century, the northern kingdom of Israel was captured by the Assyrians. There were other prophets and pundits who called for military action. They said Judah should arm itself to prevent its own destruction.

Modern politicians and pundits have called for the arming or “hardening” of schools. They claim that more guns, either by teachers or resource officers or both, will prevent future attacks.

Yet, Isaiah offered a radically different vision — transform your weapons into agricultural tools.

I believe that legislation does have a role in preventing mass shootings. We can ban the sale of assault weapons and enforce background checks before gun purchases. We can restrict the sale of large-capacity magazines that allow rapid spray fire.

It’s also the case that the act of transforming weapons into tools for life represents a radical change of values. As I suggested is the case with prayer, both things are true — changing both laws and hearts. Not either/or.

Addressing the “hate and rage and division” in our society, I think much of it is rooted in fear. The opposite of fear is faith. Instead of fearing one another, we can trust others, even if they are different on the outside. This would mean that we would not wish to bear arms against them, but put our arms around them. That self-transformation would be as faithful as turning swords into plowshares.

Why should people attend the June 9 vigil?

TROUTMAN: If prayer can change an individual, does it not follow that people praying together can change a community?

This is why I hope readers will join us at the vigil at Chapel in the Pines on June 9. We do not have to grieve alone. We can come together as people of different races and religions not only to decry what is wrong but also name what is right. The Muslim mystic Rumi said, “Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” We come together to hope for a solution and inspire our collective action to make a difference. We pray to act, and we act by coming together to pray.

Prayer may not end mass shootings or war overseas. Yet, prayer may be like the sowing of seed, which in due time, produces a crop yield 30, 60 or even 100 times greater than expected.

LEVY: By June 9, two weeks will have passed from the school shooting at Robb Elementary. We invite the community to attend to let this be a checkpoint on our journey, to not lose sight or momentum in our common work to end gun violence and keep our children and educators safe, and to move forward toward with tangible, results-driven actions with greater clarity and purpose. By God’s grace, we can only do it together.

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