Last week, as Christ Church UMC Pastor Brett Opalinski prepared for Saturday’s March for Our Lives, he urged his congregants, “pray for all who will be walking here and elsewhere, and pray for yourself that your heart will be deeply grounded in the way of Jesus.”
|Photo by Eileen Spiegler.|
About 50 members of the Fort Lauderdale congregation joined 30,000 participants March 24 at a rally and 2-mile march in Parkland that went from Pine Trails Park to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and staff members were killed by a gunman Feb. 14. It was one of an estimated 800 marches taking place worldwide, in conjunction with a march in Washington, D.C., organized by Stoneman Douglas students.
“Parkland is the heart of this movement, and therefore the march here will be the most symbolic,” Stoneman Douglas junior Rebecca Schneid told Miami’s CBS4 last week.
The day of the shooting, Opalinski had gone out to Stoneman Douglas “to be present with families, be there for them in all the hurt and pain and anxiety, and be witness to events as they were unfolding.”
In the weeks afterward, he said, “there was a heaviness that really stayed with us. A woman in our congregation said to me, ‘It feels like I just can’t get going.’ Everyone knew a student there or someone who teaches there, so there was a sense of how it hit really close to home.”
The congregation read the names of the 17 who were killed and lit candles for them. Every week, the sanctuary was left open for prayer for the Stoneman Douglas community. They also turned their prayer into action. They wrote letters to Congressional members and other elected officials. They supported the Stoneman Douglas community at memorials and prayer vigils and joined hundreds who ran with the school’s cross-country team to honor their coach, Scott Beigel, killed in the shooting.
When the students returned to school, congregants created a banner to support and welcome them.
“At UMC, we stand behind common sense gun legislation,” said Opalinski, who’s been Christ Church’s pastor for five years. “I feel very passionate about the issue. When I heard the march was happening, I felt strongly that we needed to do this. I wrote a blog post explaining that I was going and why, and invited congregants to join me and other UMC pastors in Broward.”
“There’s a lot of energy behind it, a lot of excitement from those who feel called to participate in the march,” said Opalinski. “There’s this sense that this is an important moment in history, and they want to be a part of it.
“This is as if you’re sitting across the table from someone and hearing their story of pain. It becomes more than an issue of politics. It becomes an issue of humanity.”
At the Parkland march, the crowd’s mix of ages—students, senior citizens, families—mirrored the congregation’s. Kat Irvine was there with her 7-year-old son.
|Christ Church Associate Pastor Josh Beaty (left) joins with Pastor Brett Opalinski at "March for Our Lives" in Parkland on Saturday.|
“We lost someone from our church,” said Irvine, who belongs to St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church in Pompano Beach, where shooting victim Cara Loughran, 14, was also a member. “I believe in the right to bear arms, but we should have safety in safe places. I hope they can improve gun laws. I shouldn’t have to be worried about my son in school.”
Shanelly Pacheco, 18, graduated from nearby Coral Glades High last year. “When the shooting happened, I called all my friends to make sure they were okay,” she said. “It scares me to think of my children being raised in this environment. I want change, and I’m going to keep pushing until change comes.”
The Christ Church congregants began the day of the march with prayer. After some debate, the pastors decided to wear their clergy collars. “It’s hard not to think, well, it will be hot, and they’ll be uncomfortable,” Opalinski said. “But something inside me said the Church had to be visibly present. I look back on the 1965 Selma March with Martin Luther King, and the presence of the clergy on the [Edmund Pettus] bridge made such a powerful statement.”
Among Stoneman Douglas students who spoke to the crowd was Adam Buchwald, who lived near Newtown, Connecticut, at the time of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. “This is not an awareness movement,” he said. “This is a change movement, and it requires action from all of you.”
Parkland march organizers asked for silence as the crowd walked past the school “as a tribute to the 17 fallen angels,” and that marchers not pause at the site, “as a signal of our determination to keep moving forward.”
Opalinski reflected on how, throughout history, “the Church has, in many ways, been a stumbling block around justice. It’s been seen as apathetic or even actively supporting injustice. It’s important now for the Church to be seen walking with these students and families, and in support of these changes, promoting nonviolence and gun control.
“Not everyone in our church would agree, and I certainly respect that. But I think a large portion sincerely wants the world to know the Church is walking with these folks.”
--Eileen Spiegler is a freelance writer based in Fort Lauderdale.