Some stood with hands raised; others sat with heads bowed; all crying out to God in their own way on behalf of the loved ones of America’s most recent massacre victims. No, this prayer scene was not in Newtown, Conn. It was at the Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church – 300 miles away – in the heart of Washington, D.C.
“We pray, God, that even during this horrific time, you will deliver and show your grace. Even during this time of calamity, God, show yourself mighty! Show yourself strong! We lift up Newtown, Connecticut. We lift up that school. We lift up those students. Have mercy, in Jesus name!” prayed Bishop T. Cedric Brown, Calvary’s associate pastor.
The Greater Mount Calvary congregation is only one church out of thousands around the nation that have no doubt prayed for the loved ones of the 20 first-grade children and seven adults killed by a 20-year-old man described as “troubled” by some who knew him. The Christmas season adds to the heart-wrenching nature of the tragedy.
But whether death by mass shooting, single homicide or an accidental stray bullet while on the way to school, pastors and clergy say ministering to the grieving after a violent death of a loved one is among the most painful of their assignments from God.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult, particularly when you’re dealing with children and children at those ages,” says Bishop Noel Jones, pastor of the City of Refuge Church, located in the Watts section of Los Angeles. “For them to have been so helplessly killed and being in a circumstance that is so normal – going to school and going to class and something this diabolical happens, the tendency is for us to say that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s how we dismiss these kinds of things. But the truth is they were supposed to be in school and it’s the proper place for them to be…Maybe that’s where the comfort is: ‘I did what I was supposed to do. My children are supposed to be in school. They’re supposed to learn.’ It leaves a lot of bitterness and unanswered questions. It’s very hard to comfort somebody in that type of situation. It’s nearly impossible.”
Yet, there are ways to at least begin to strengthen and comfort them, says Bishop Brown.
“One of the things that you have to convey to individuals is compassion. When you look throughout scripture, whenever someone was dealing with a tragedy or a horrific situation in their lives, Jesus, the Bible says, showed them compassion. So, we are an extension of him – of Christ – and it is our responsibility to show forth the person of Christ.”
Often people will ask difficult questions, like why it happened. No one has all the answers, Brown said.
“We ought to be authentic in saying, ‘I don’t know why this happened. I don’t know why would someone in this particular situation, why would they walk into a school and just randomly kill people. There is no explanation for that.’ But it is the pastor’s job to be there, to be fully engaged and to show full compassion on them and what they’re dealing with and to provide solace and to let them know that ‘I’m here. God is still a loving God. He is still concerned about you…And I am here with you to walk with you through this…And so, sometimes the best thing to do is just to be there and say nothing.”The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, agrees.
“Sometimes the greatest compassion and comfort is just being there to not try to come up with answers and be super religious and throw scriptures out there,” said Bryant. “One of the things that I try to instill, especially over the holidays – whether someone is lost to homicide or to cancer – is to relive the positive memories; not the incident that led to death. That will help to bring a greater level of closure.”
Bryant, who has four children between the ages of 6 and 8, says they have been asking why the children were killed. He said he is honest in discussing the incident with them.
“I tell them that the man that did it was mentally challenged, needed help and didn’t get the help that he needed. And I tell them that we’ve got to pray for people like that,” he said.
The Rev. Steven Johnson, pastor of Abundant Faith Ministries of Towson, Md., also near Baltimore, says “Trust in God” is among the most important encouragement he gives to the grieving.
“Isaiah 26:3 says He will keep us in perfect peace if our minds are stayed on him because we trust him. When something tragic like this happens, the only thing that you can do is trust that God knows best. Trying to tell that to a mother who just lost a 5-year-old who will never go to high school, who will never get married, who will never bear children, who will never get a chance to see her life really mature is a hard place because people are then searching for answers. They want to know why an innocent child.”
Pastor Johnson predicts that the shooting will cause great dialog about gun control and about parenting.
“This is a watershed moment for all of us…I can’t even imagine the magnitude, but I know that the clergy has a huge responsibility now to try to help parents and family members and that community to try to come to grips with this,” Johnson said. “They’re all with the Lord and they will serve a purpose to begin some serious discussion, not only on parenting responsibility but also the gun control issue.”
Parents’ involvement in those issues – even while grieving – will help with the healing process, says Jones. “It’s continuing to live that helps to heal. It’s taking on the issue that surrounded the loss of the children. It’s taking on the issues of mental health, taking on the issues of abuse in general, taking on the issue of the availability of weapons.”
Jones agrees that parenting appears to be a major issue in the Sandy Hook case. Several people who knew the killer says he was known to be “troubled.” Even a former baby sitter said his mother – who he also killed – warned him not to leave him alone or turn his back on him – even to go to the bathroom.
Parents have a responsibility to bring a child like that to authorities, says Jones. “You can’t have a mad situation like that in your home and keep it under cover.”
Among the most difficult question that some ask in the time of tragedy is, “Why did God allow this to happen to children? Where was he when my child was in danger?”
The pastors pondered how they answer such questions.
Johnson says he reminds them that “Dying is a part of life – scheduled or unscheduled.”
Asking questions is healthy, resolves Brown. “Allow them to express that frustration. Allow them to ask that question” and let them know that God does not mind it.
Bryant concludes: “I remind them, one, that God didn’t do it. And then I remind them of how his own son died.”
Ultimately, Brown said, the answer to that question is that “God has still given man a choice. He has given us a will…Unfortunately we live in a world where people choose to do evil things.”