Faith leaders react to FL shooting

Special services and support offered for community residents.

February 16, 2018

A youth group leader at St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs was amongst those killed.
Credit: St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church's Facebook page

Rev. Vance Rains, pastor of First Church in Coral Springs, FL
Credit: Rev. Vance Rains

The Rev. Vance Rains had expected that his church’s Ash Wednesday evening service would be just like the noon service.

But in-between, a mass shooting occurred at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida.

So evening worship at First United Methodist Church of Coral Springs, became a time for grieving, consoling and praying, with Rains improvising a new message.

“I talked about Jesus calming the storm and basically said that Jesus obviously doesn’t calm all the storms, but he’s with us in the storms, and he’s bigger than the storms,” Rains said.

The high school is in Florida’s heavily suburban Broward County, but also close to the Everglades, which Marjory Stoneman Douglas helped preserve through her writings and advocacy.

“We had a lot of students and teachers there, lots of deep connections,” Rains said. “People are still in shock.”

An outdoor prayer vigil was held on Thursday at Parkridge Church, a Baptist community. More than 1,000 people attended a community-wide vigil Thursday night.

The suspect, carrying a semi-automatic rifle, was identified as a former student who had been expelled for disciplinary reasons, according to Broward County school officials. Authorities say the shooting began around 2:30 p.m. just before classes were dismissed.

Denominational leaders including the Presbyterians, United Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians were among those who have released statements following the tragedy.

The Presbytery of Tropical Florida has announced a “Vigil of Prayer and Light” at the First Presbyterian Church of Pompano Beach (The Pink Church) at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

“There are no words that can capture the depth of despair we hold after the violence that took place at the school,” said the Rev. Dr. Daris Bultena, general presbyter of the presbytery. “With you, I watched the television reports, interacted on social media, and sat in silence. I heard an interview with one student who said ‘We can mourn. We can grieve. But we’ve got to push forward.’ I heard the resolve in his voice and I’m claiming that resolve for us to push forward.”

“The vigil is for everyone... We are hearing stories of how members of our congregations know a student or a parent at Stoneman Douglas,” he said. “In this moment, we will do all we are able to stand with those in our community who are struggling now to see their way through this day. Be in prayer for counselors who are meeting with traumatized children, with loved ones who are re-shaping their sense of reality, and with members of our congregations who are directly touched by heartbreak.”

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) has been invited by the presbytery to support local churches and will be sending representatives to the area to be at the vigil and worship with churches on Sunday.

Christ Church, a Lutheran community, was open Thursday and Friday for prayers and in collaboration with Life Fellowship Seventh Day Adventist, is planning a Friday night vigil.

The Rev. Lou Forney, lead pastor at Christ, wrote to the community: "We stand with you. We pray for you. We offer whatever support, guidance, assistance you might need during these turbulent times. You are never alone. When one grieves we all grieve; when one rejoices, we all rejoice."

The Rev. Pedro M. Suárez, Bishop of the Florida-Bahamas Lutheran (ELCA) Synod was less three miles from the high school when the shooting took place. Writing shortly after the shooting, he encouraged his church members to take time to reflect, not only as individuals "but as a society as well. Perhaps this reflection will lead us to repent of our systemic sins…sins that clearly bring destruction and death. We must repent of our lack of proper mental health care for our children, for not having a better system that would prevent people like (the shooter) access to a gun, and for so many other systemic ways we make tragedies like this one a possibility."

Episcopal bishops are arranging for services of lamentation at churches around the country in the wake of the shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 students and faculty members dead, and the bishops and other church leaders are calling for political action against gun violence to end “these lethal spasm of violence in our country.”

“The heart of our nation has been broken yet again by another mass shooting at an American school,” Bishops United Against Gun Violence, a coalition of more than 70 Episcopal bishops, said in a statement released Feb. 16.

Bishops United offered condolences to the families, singling out a 16-year-old student who was a youth group leader at St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs.

The Coral Springs church posted news of his death Feb. 15 on Facebook.

The Diocese of Southeast Florida, which includes Parkland and Coral Springs, released a statement expressing grief at the “horrific massacre of innocents.”

“There are no words that can adequately give voice to the madness and the violence done to those gunned down, and to their families and friends so cruelly robbed of those they loved,” the statement says. “There are no words to make sense of what makes no sense...”

Promising aid to assist healing ministries needed in the coming weeks, Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church wrote: "On this Ash Wednesday our services announced the biblical imperative to 'repent and believe the gospel.' In light of today's shootings, we repent from our participation in a culture of death; we acknowledge the harm we do to others, and we claim the power of the cross that breaks the cycle of violence and retaliation."

A youth member of Bethesda Haitian United Methodist Mission, in Tamarac was among the Douglas High student survivors.

“We heard the guns shooting. We were so scared,” said Judeland Norceide, a 12th grader.

The youth recalled a frantic, harrowing evacuation, and a tense two-hour wait to learn that a cousin of hers, a fellow Douglas student, was OK. Though no friends of hers were killed or wounded, she’s mourning the death of a beloved school staff member.

Judeland’s pastor, the Rev. Aurilus Desmornes, counseled and prayed with her at the family home after the shootings.

The Rev. Cheryl Jane “CJ” Walter, pastor of Cokesbury United Methodist Church in nearby Margate, said her congregation had a few family and friend connections at the school. None were killed or injured.

Cokesbury opened to offer prayer stations on Feb. 15, and planned an evening prayer vigil.

“Basically, it’s just listening to people at this point and helping them find something to hold onto, and we’re so grateful that God’s holding onto us,” Walter said.

The Rev. Cynthia Weems, superintendent of the Florida Conference’s South East District, said the United Methodist pastors near the shootings are part of a highly effective covenant or support group.

“They are positioned particularly well to lead their congregations and communities in this time of tragedy due to their strong friendships with one another and the years of shared ministry they have modeled to their larger community, including church-school partnerships that are a priority for the Florida Conference,” Weems wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, at First Church, Coral Springs, Rains used his blog to muse on what “broke” the assailant and to acknowledge his own struggles in the massacre’s aftermath.

“I’m torn between wondering if the church is making any difference in this world at all, and knowing Christ, working in the church, is the only hope we have,” Rains wrote.

This article was written by DNN staff and includes content from articles written by Rick Jones of Presbyterian News Service, Sam Hodges of United Methodist News Service and David Paulsen of Episcopal News Service.

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