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Church responds to days of mass shootings (UM News)

January 25, 2023

United Methodists are reeling after multiple mass shootings over the past few days took more than 20 lives, left dozens injured and sewed heartbreak across the U.S.

Churchgoers are responding with prayer, comfort for the grieving and renewed calls for advocacy against gun violence. United Methodists especially are expressing solidarity with Asian American communities brutalized by attacks in Monterey Park and on the outskirts of Half Moon Bay, California.

“Today we have a chance to wipe away the tears of our world when we decide to address pain with love; to be present to those suffering; and to mourn and weep and wail in hopes for a better future,” California-Pacific Bishop Dottie Escobedo-Frank wrote in a statement to the wider church.

“First, we must mourn, and comfort, and pray. Then, tomorrow, we begin the work to change our world.”

Escobedo-Frank’s area includes Monterey Park, California, where 11 people were fatally shot and nine injured at a dance studio on Jan. 21 after Lunar New Year festivities. Shepherd of the Hills United Methodist Church, a largely Asian American congregation, joined in Monterey Park’s citywide prayer vigil on Jan. 24.

The Rev. Jacob Lee is the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Torrance, California, about two miles from where authorities found the suspected gunman dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

He went from joining his multi-ethnic congregation in prayer for the grieving on Sunday morning to warning parishioners to stay home that evening when news broke that the gunman was found nearby. About half of the congregation is Asian American, and he is urging the church’s ushers to be vigilant at the coming Sunday service for anyone who might wish to do harm.

He also hopes to do more than just pray. “This keeps happening over and over,” he said. “Just praying for family members is not enough… I feel like we need to put our faith into action.”

In addition to the Monterey Park violence, shootings over the past few days have:

According to the Gun Violence Archive, the U.S. has seen 40 mass shootings in the first 25 days of 2023. The Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as an incident when four or more people are shot or killed — not including the shooter.

In Half Moon Bay, members of Community United Methodist Church stepped up to help the farm workers and their families with immediate needs. The families were suddenly displaced when their housing became a crime scene. Church members brought blankets, food and other supplies as families waited in a nearby center to learn next steps, said the Rev. Lisa Warner-Carey, the congregation’s pastor.

When volunteers learned that most of the families had just grabbed their phones and left, a church member who owned an electronics store cleaned out his inventory to provide the families with phone chargers and charging cables.

The county, for now, has placed the families in local motels. But longer-term issues remain including the need for affordable housing. Warner-Carey said the farm workers were living in what were essentially shipping containers. She said she and her church will continue to work with other local faith and community groups to deal with long-term housing shortages and care for people. But she is grateful the church has support well beyond its city and county. 

“I really appreciate the United Methodist sense of connection. I’ve had so many United Methodist pastors reach out to me to offer help and ask how I was doing, how my community was doing, how they could be supportive,” Warner-Carey said. “Before the suspect was even arrested, my district superintendent called me.”

The Rev. Staci Current, Warner-Carey’s district superintendent, was having coffee with a pastor in Oakland only four blocks away when that attack occurred. 

“These shootings must stop,” she said. “I pray for all who have lost loved ones and for our communities which are traumatized.” 

California-Nevada Conference Interim Bishop Sally Dyck, whose area includes Half Moon Bay and Oakland, also joined her prayers for those devastated by the recent attacks. In addition to role in the conference, Dyck is board president of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, which advocates for the denomination’s social teachings.

“Federal gun laws are needed, but it’s not just laws that are needed,” Dyck wrote in a statement. “We need to provide a witness for peace that decries the violent use of guns. We need to promote resources for persons who are struggling during these days of an increased mental health crisis across our country. We must be vigilant in prayerful discernment and public witness to our government officials and within our communities.”

Louisiana Conference Bishop Delores J. Williamston also pointed to the actions United Methodists can take as well as the resources Church and Society offers.

“Connect with and support those who are directly impacted by gun violence,” she wrote, citing Church and Society’s recommendations. “Support gun violence prevention programs, de-escalation groups, safety trainings, and support groups for survivors of gun violence.”

The United Methodist Church in its Social Principles and Book of Resolutions has long called on churchgoers to work to end gun violence.

But over the past year as the ebbing of COVID-19 has been accompanied by carnage at a New York grocery store, a California church, an Illinois parade and a Texas elementary school, United Methodists have stepped up their advocacy on firearms.

More than a dozen annual conferences — the denomination’s regional bodies — took a public stand to address gun violence when they met last year. The United Methodist Council of Bishops followed that up with letters to the wider church as well as the U.S. Congress and White House urging action.

“As people of prayer, we followers of Jesus are called to be ‘counter-cultural change makers,’” the bishops wrote to the wider church. “To that end, we must reject the idolatry of guns and the distorted attachments to our right to own guns without safeguards for the communities of the world.”

A number of the conference resolutions and the bishops’ letter advocated for the same measures recommended in “Our Call to End Gun Violence,” which the denomination’s General Conference adopted in 2016.

The bishops’ letter and a number of conferences also called for an assault-weapons ban in the U.S.

Bigham-Tsai, Williamston and Escobedo-Frank had not yet been elected bishops when their fellow episcopal leaders released their letter, but the new bishops echoed the same call.

Escobedo-Frank envisions the wave of violence being overtaken by a wave of change.

“As you pray… light a candle of hope in your heart that we can find a way to wipe away the tears of the ages, and even the tears that flowed down Jesus’ face,” she wrote.