Many pastors decided they would call for prayer, again, to surround families and a city suffering from another gun slaughter. The El Paso shooter reportedly targeted immigrants.
When the Rev. Robert Smith arrived at his church early Sunday morning to learn nine more people had died overnight during a street shooting in Dayton, Ohio, the preacher knew he had to do something.
“I realized I was going to set my sermon aside and address the congregation,” said Smith, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Hillsville, Virginia. "It's a matter of stepping out on faith."
Smith was one of several pastors in Holston Conference who on Sunday, Aug. 4, expressed anguish and a Christian response to the epidemic of violence happening in schools, stores, offices, nightclubs, theaters, banks, hospitals, churches, and other public places.
In 2019 alone, the United States experienced 255 mass shootings by Aug. 5, according to Gun Violence Archive. The research group defines mass shootings as four or more shot, not including the shooter.
“Pastors are called to preach the word, and that word cannot be absent of current context,” said the Rev. Josh Swanson, who also set aside his planned sermon to address the shootings. Swanson is pastor at Ketron Memorial United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee.
“Our silence puts us on the side of maintaining the norm, and we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we alright with that?’” Swanson said, after videotaping his sermon to share more widely.
Preaching from Ephesians 6: 10-18, Swanson urged his congregants on Aug. 4 to respond to the latest tragedies by calling out evil wherever they see it, even if it’s a racist joke from a relative or a friend’s post on social media. “We’re called to shine a light of love in those dark places that are filled with all kinds of hate,” he said.
In Hillsville, Smith spoke about a recent “blessing of the backpacks” in his church and the shame we should feel that bulletproof backpacks are now sold.
“We need to get serious and do more than pray,” Smith said. “We need to be the church and offer Christ. That’s the bottom line. We get so distracted on so many other things.”
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Rev. Mark Gooden spoke passionately about the shooting victims in the midst of his planned sermon from Numbers 22. Gooden is senior pastor at First-Centenary United Methodist Church.
“We forget to live as God called us to live,” he said. “God welcomes people that we often don’t want to welcome. We are the people that often want to curse other people ... But God is with the least, the lost, and the left out. God is with those who are left behind and left on the side of the road.”
At Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, worshippers heard the Rev. Chuck Starks share his heart before his planned sermon.
“It was truly an attempt to be honest about the suffering that is taking place in people’s lives,” the senior pastor said. He noted that authorities are investigating the El Paso killings as a possible hate crime.
“The indications are this was done under the influence of the ideology of white supremacy, and that does not speak for me. I’m a white man and a Christian, but that does not speak for me,” Starks said.
Starks told his congregants that as long the nation fails to make “different decisions, it’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of where, when, and how many” people will die. He asked worshippers to pray for victims, their families, and the communities affected by the shootings, as well as the shooters themselves.
At Memorial United Methodist Church in Clinton, Tennessee, the Rev. Scott Wilks said news of the second shooting of the weekend “weighed heavily on my mind and heart as we entered worship” on Sunday, Aug. 4.
Before announcements, Wilks asked his congregation “to spend a minute in silent prayer and reflection. At the end of that minute, my simple prayer was, ‘Cure your children’s warring madness,’” Wilks said. The phrase is from the hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory.”
The United Methodist “Book of Resolutions” addresses gun violence and a Biblical vision for peace that some pastors said they share with their congregations after news of each shooting.
“As followers of Jesus, called to live into the reality of God’s dream of shalom as described by Micah, we must address the epidemic of gun violence so ‘that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.’ Therefore, we call upon United Methodists to prayerfully address gun violence in their local context,” the resolution states.
On Aug. 6, Council of Bishops President Bishop Ken Carter released a letter calling for United Methodists to help end white supremacy and xenophobia which he said is fueling a culture of violence.
“Jesus is calling us to love our neighbor (Mark 12),” Carter said. “To love our neighbor is to work for a church that does not exclude anyone, that welcomes immigrants, that reckons with the systemic realities of racism and that honors the faith of people across the political aisle from wherever we are sitting.”
In Sevierville, Tennessee, the Rev. Susana Lopez changed her weekly Wednesday-night sermon to speak to a Hispanic congregation not only reeling from shootings in El Paso and Dayton, but also a massive raid by U.S. immigration authorities on workplaces in Mississippi.
Lopez preached on Acts 11:26, when disciples were called Christians for the first time. “As imitators of Christians nowadays, we have such a load that we have to carry,” she told her congregation. “We see so much hate and violence opposite of what the scriptures tell us, it’s hard to tell who is Christian and who is not.”
Lopez encouraged worshippers to be lights in the midst of a dark world and to be ready when God calls them home.
“It’s not just in El Paso but everybody is living in a state of fear,” she said. “It’s not going to get any better. If we truly value the sacrifice Jesus made, we’re going to strive to be ready and be the Christians we’re called to be. That way, when the Lord calls you in a car accident or on vacation or in WalMart, like those people were, you’ll be ready to give an account when that time comes.”
Contact Annette Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
United Methodist Book of Resolutions: Our Call to End Gun Violence
UMC bishops urge end to white supremacy (Council of Bishops, 8.7.19)
Mass shootings prompt prayer, action (UMNS, 8.5.19)
Shaming pastors is not the way to respond to shootings (Baptist News, 8.7.19)
Shootings spur pastors to call out white supremacy (Christianity Today, 8.7.19)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.