By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Some of the hardest memories from 2013 are those associated with violence.
Churches, religious and secular organizations remembered the mass murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn., on the one-year anniversary of the shooting on Dec. 14.
Two 7-year-olds from Newtown United Methodist Church were among the dead, killed by a 20-year-old shooter.
The National Council of Churches prayer vigil against gun violence Dec. 12 at the Washington National Cathedral, letters to Congress urging further action on gun control and calling for a National Gun Violence Sabbath Weekend March 13-16, 2014 were among many faith responses.
Boston Marathon bombings
United Methodists in Boston and around the globe testified to the ways they saw God in action after two explosions shattered the peace of the Boston Marathon, taking at least three lives and leaving more than 170 injured on April 15.
Boston Area Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, who leads the New England Annual (regional) Conference, said in a letter to the conference that the “outpouring of love and support from friends and colleagues in our United Methodist connection has been overwhelming and wonderful.”
Union United Methodist Church — about a 10-minute walk from the finish line — opened its sanctuary that afternoon to those needing warmth, comfort and prayer, said the church’s lead pastor, the Rev. Jay Williams.
Trayvon Martin, racial profiling, white privilege
On Feb. 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was shot and killed by a member of a neighborhood watch in Sanford, Fla. The shooter, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic, said he shot the teen in self-defense. A jury on July 13 found Zimmerman not guilty after deliberating for more than 15 hours.
Many took to the streets to protest the not-guilty verdict but many also went to their houses of worship to find peace and seek answers.
Bishop Ken Carter, episcopal leader of the Florida Annual (regional) Conference, sent a letter to the pastor and people of First United Methodist Church, Sanford, Fla., saying he was praying for peace for them but also encouraging the congregation to be a sign of God’s grace and peace in the days ahead.
Bishop Thomas Bickerton, episcopal leader of the Pittsburgh Area, wrote a column about “white privilege” stirred by the Martin verdict.
“Today I simply want to remind those of us who benefit greatly from white privilege that we should be very careful to think before we speak any word of judgment and condemnation in this or any other case that involves potential racism.
“Likewise, those of us who may remain silent should be very bold to speak on behalf of the hurts and injustices suffered by those around us. We do not walk parallel paths. Our experience is far different than the experience of others. Our comforts are not shared uniformly.”
Westgate Mall siege
On Sept. 21, United Methodist Board of Discipleship staff member Scott Gilpin was headed to the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. About 100 yards from the entrance, he saw the beginning of the siege that led to the deaths of as many as 100. Afterward, he stayed four more days to volunteer with a Kenyan Red Cross blood drive.
“I chose to stay in Nairobi and for four days was given the healing gift of endeavoring shoulder-to-shoulder with Christian, Hindu and Muslim, with Somali and Kenyan at a temporary Red Cross outdoor blood collection site called Uhuru Park.
“Many have asked me why God allowed Westgate to happen. The answer remains a mystery. My take is that, as a unique creation of God, we have free will. We have the choice to do good and evil, and we live in a wonderful and a broken world. Evil comes when God’s love is not present; the Westgate murderers lived in darkness.
“I have no doubt that God was present for all who suffered at Westgate. Besides, suffering, violence and death are never the last word. As Christians, we believe in eternal life. Resurrection gives hope for those who were killed and hope we will be reunited with our loved ones.”
According to police records, on Jan. 10, the Rev. Terry Greer, 53, shot and killed his wife, Lisa, 52, and wounded his daughter, Suzanna, 18. Greer, who remains in prison, was indicted by a Jefferson County Grand Jury for murder and attempted murder on Aug. 16.
On Jan. 15, members of Greer’s church, Gardendale (Ala.)-Mt. Vernon United Methodist, came through the doors of the sanctuary seeking comfort and answers.
Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, episcopal leader of the North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference said she looked at many Scriptures trying to find the right word for her sermon. She said Mark 4 — the story of Jesus calming the Sea of Galilee — seemed most appropriate. She said there are parallels between that ancient story and what this church is facing.
“We are in a ferocious storm, and it has left us feeling off balance,” she said, adding that just as Jesus stayed in the boat and calmed the seas, he will do the same for us.
“My heart breaks for the people of this congregation, for the Greer family and all their friends that are in such pain,” she said.
Prayers for all
Three Denver area United Methodist churches reached out to shaken residents after a Dec. 13 shooting at Arapahoe High School in Centennial. The shooter, 18-year-old Karl Pierson, came heavily armed to the school, authorities said. He shot a fellow senior, Claire Davis — who remained in critical condition — before fatally shooting himself.
Pierson’s mother, Barbara, is a member of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch and the church expected to assist in her son’s funeral. St. Andrew also opened its doors for special prayer sessions for all affected, and the senior pastor, the Rev. Gary Shockley, spoke about the tragedy in his Dec. 15 sermon.
St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch and Littleton United Methodist Church in Littleton, both within a few miles of the school, also reached out to Arapahoe High students, parents and teachers in their congregations.
At St. Luke’s a high school choral concert went on as planned the evening of Dec. 13th, and proved to be a “healing moment,” according to the church’s director of music and arts, James Ramsey. At the Littleton church, parents of students at Columbine High during the 1999 school shootings there offered advice and support to parents of Arapahoe High students.
Gun violence has been a concern of United Methodists for decades starting with a resolution in 1976 that described the United States as a “shooting gallery.” The 2012 United Methodist General Conference again stated that concern saying there are an estimated 223 million firearms in the United States alone.
United Methodist faith leaders held a news conference after the Newtown shooting outside the Washington National Cathedral on Dec. 21, 2012, to say gun control is a religious issue.
“This must become a matter of moral conscience, not just politics,” said Bishop Peter Weaver, executive secretary of the United Methodist Council of Bishops. “It’s not about Republicans or Democrats; it’s about our children and what some have called a ‘national epidemic’ of gun violence.”
* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Contact her at (615) 742-5470. Sam Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, who lives in Dallas, contributed to this story.