Small NM town reels from violence

Presbyterians, community leaders, reaching out to those traumatized by high school shooting.


"This is not something that normally happens here. We are a friendly, neighborly community and we all know each other."

—Rev. Michele Goff, Aztec Presbyterian Church

The small community of Aztec, New Mexico, is still reeling from last week’s shooting at a local high school that left two students and the alleged gunman dead.  San Juan County authorities say William Atchison, 21, planned the attack at Aztec High School and had purchased a 9mm Glock last month.

Authorities say Atchison, a former student at the school, entered the building last Thursday morning with a gun and several rounds of ammunition in a backpack. Once alone, police say he loaded the gun and began firing at students he came in contact with before turning the gun on himself.

While authorities continue their investigation into what led Atchison to act, local churches and community leaders are helping residents cope.

“The evening of the shooting, several pastors and I got together and planned a candlelight vigil for the community,” said the Rev. Michele Goff, pastor of Aztec Presbyterian Church. “We are a small community of over 6,000 people and the local park was filled to overflowing.”

Goff described the mood at the vigil as somber, yet calm. She says some attendees were in shock and a bit anxious.

“This is not something that normally happens here,” she said. “We are a friendly, neighborly community and we all know each other.”

Goff says she responded to an offer from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for help on how to address the shooting with her congregation this past Sunday.

“I gave a sermonette and then just talked to my congregation about where they were in processing what happened and what they needed,” she said. “Several members expressed concern about the shooter’s parents. He was 21 years old and those parents are mourning just like the parents of the other students.”

Goff, whose church is two blocks away from the school, says members discussed how they might minister to the family.

“It would be nice to support them somehow. We know people get angry and have the potential to lash out at them; we don’t want to do that,” she said. “We realize that someone in our community was hurting so badly that no one was able to help.”

Jim Kirk, PDA’s associate for national disaster response, has been in contact with presbytery leaders in the region.

“It’s a small community and so everyone was impacted by the shootings,” he said. “People are asking how they can protect themselves in these types of tragedies. We have provided resources to churches and are prepared to help in any way we can.”

Coincidentally, David Barnhart, PDA associate for Story Ministry, was in Santa Fe at the time of the shooting, meeting with a group called New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonpartisan organization working to reduce gun violence and deaths.

“This organization, started by a Presbyterian pastor and other community leaders, grew out of the Sandy Hook shooting,” Barnhart said. “The group came together to develop practical steps to prevent gun violence at the local/community level and could be a model for other communities and cities across the country.”

Barnhart is planning to highlight the state’s gun violence prevention efforts in an upcoming video series entitled “Everyday Epidemic.” Working with students and schools, the organization has come up with a number of projects to raise awareness and engage young people in the education process.

“I love their mural work where they develop and collectively brainstorm the concept, symbols and design of a mural. Once the framework is in place, they project it on to a wall and paint it themselves,” he said. “Along with the murals, they also participate in a gun violence prevention pledge that builds on conversation and learning from the mural.”

Barnhart says the organization was planning to work on a project at Aztec High School prior to the shooting.

“I have been impressed by the diversity of the voices involved in these projects including artists, young people, teachers, the school superintendent, sheriff, mayor and NRA members,” he said. “I think this wide spectrum of voices coming together in our communities can help us move forward.”

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is able to respond to emergencies because of gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing. Gifts can also be designated to PDA’s Public Violence account, DR000188.

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