Editor’s Note: This is part two of a story on prayer vigils and how three churches opened their hearts during times of tragedy.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina, are separated by more than 600 miles, but June 19, 2015, they were one city. That was the night roughly 500 people gathered at St. John United Methodist Church in Fort Lauderdale for a prayer vigil honoring the nine black church members killed in a racially motivated mass shooting in Charleston.
|Calling it a "time to bring people together," St. John Senior Pastor Simon Osunlana held a prayer vigil in Ft. Lauderdale in the days following the shooting at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC in 2015.|
"Evil that happens anywhere is evil everywhere,” St. John Senior Pastor Simon Osunlana said. “It is something we are all called to respond to, regardless of where we are.”
His primary motivation was to bring comfort and ease and diffuse the divisive conversations surrounding the crime. “I just thought it would be a time to bring people together,” Osunlana said. “I wasn’t even sure who was going to show up. We were just so amazed that so many churches came—white, black, Hispanic.”
The simple service focused on the three men and six women who lost their lives when a white gunman opened fire during a Bible study at historic Emanuel AME Church. “We remembered each one of those people,” Osunlana said. “We spent time to pray for the country, for South Carolina and for Emanuel Church.”
Some mourners broke down in tears while others sat in solemn reflection. Osunlana offered a brief reflection on fear, reading Psalms 23 and assuring those attending that God hears the prayers of his children.
“A lot of people were afraid because they were not sure what exactly was going on,” he recalled. “That fear was palpable everywhere. It might be happening hundreds of miles away but it still felt like it could happen right here too.”
Osunlana is sure the Holy Spirit was working that night because, by the end of the service, some of the “very obvious” tension in the air had been relieved. “It was a healing, healing service,” he said. “We prepared food for everybody that came, and so we had a great time and people stayed until late in the evening to just talk.”
‘We need justice’
In Jacksonville—where citizens, law enforcement and city officials are struggling with an uptick in homicides—Bruce Jones, senior pastor at Southside United Methodist Church, has seen public prayer vigils used as a tool of empowerment.
For the past couple of years, he and others from Southside have lent their support to MAD DADS, a group committed to curbing the city’s drug and gun violence, and their pledge to hold vigils on the street corners of the neighborhoods where the killings occur.
“They’re always outside,” Jones said. “We believe that when you go into a building, you disappear from the community. Nobody sees you.” MAD DADS also takes the time to canvass the neighborhood after the vigil, going door-to-door to encourage residents to share what they know with law enforcement.
“One of the things I’ve heard very clearly from the MAD DADS is that we need justice,” Jones said. “We need these people to be caught and to be caught swiftly. Otherwise, the family just goes on and on with no closure, and that just kills them.”
On one hand, the sight of a prayer circle at the site of a fatal shooting or stabbing can provide comfort to victims’ families and their neighbors. “People who live in these really violent neighborhoods—they’re as shocked and disturbed by it as the rest of the city,” Jones said. “They are just beside themselves. They look at it like the rest of us, but they have to live in the middle of it.”
On the other hand that same prayer vigil can serve as a pretty bold message to drug dealers, gangs or even residents protecting the criminals.
“The positive thing is people from these neighborhoods are standing on the street corners saying, ‘No, we’re not going to put up with this. We are watching. Don’t think this can happen with impunity,’” Jones added.
Both Jones and Osunlana believe public prayer vigils have the potential to transform entire neighborhoods. Jones, a middle-aged white man, said he formed relationships with people across Jacksonville that he likely never would have met if he hadn’t started attending the vigils.
--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer based in Pensacola
« Read part one: "Prayer vigils impact communities"