Rev. Vance Rains had listened for days as people tried to speak through their tears and grief. He heard stories of deep pain, loss and despair.
He could sense tragedy covering a community like a shroud as people tried to understand the inexplicable after a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and murdered 17 innocents—students, adults, sons, daughters, parents, friends and neighbors.
A staggered community knocked to its knees had wept, struggled and planned funerals. Rains gave what comfort he could, but mostly, he just let people talk.
“They needed someone to listen,” he said.
But now it was Sunday morning, and as pastor of First Church of Coral Springs—located about 3 miles from the scene of horror—it was his turn to speak.
“I felt I needed to be honest with the congregation,” he said. “They all wondered, where is God? Why did God let this happen? I couldn’t get up and sugarcoat any of this. I had to be honest about the struggles everyone was going through.
“I wondered what I could say that is true, real, substantive—not just a platitude trying to make people feel good. The question really weighing heavily on me was, what now? I just took it to the cross. We all needed to know that Christ is with us.”
The task was the same for pastors at churches throughout that area. They had to give equal measures of comfort, hope, understanding and love—sometimes to their own parishioners, but sometimes to strangers.
“Everybody in our congregation knows somebody who attends school there,” said Rev. Brett Opalinski, a United Methodist pastor at Christ Church in Fort Lauderdale.
“When something like this happens, it shatters our security. In moments like this, we see where the gospel intersects with real life.”
That intersection of faith and need drove him to act on the night of the shooting. He felt compelled to leave Ash Wednesday services in the hands of other pastors at the church while he went to a park near the school where distraught parents waited for news about their children.
“I heard on the radio that people were gathering at that park, so I just kind of followed the crowd,” he said.
“To be honest, I had no idea what I was going to do. People wanted to talk, though. I just went up and started asking people how they were doing.”
He saw people from all walks of life being Jesus to those who needed to feel love the most.
“There in the midst of all those families who were just waiting, I saw Jews and Muslims caring for complete strangers, holding their hands, listening to what they had to say,” he said.
“I saw police officers passing out water to exhausted parents. I saw love in action. Tears well up in my eyes just thinking about it.”
That image is what reminds him that Jesus was present for those in such pain.
“I’ve been asked where God was a lot the last days,” he said.
“No, I don’t believe God caused this or willed it. With free will, there is an unpredictability in the universe, but God does show up in small, beautiful ways. The message, even in something like this, is that we worship a resurrected Christ.”
Rev. Cheryl Jane (C.J.) Walter, pastor at Cokesbury-Margate UMC, was likely more prepared than most to deal with a tragedy of such impact.
She and her husband spent 20 years as global missionaries, and their first stop was in Jamaica, where about 1,000 people died in the leadup to a 1983 election. They spent time in Ireland during social upheaval.
“One time we had a machine gun battle in our front yard,” she said.
Even if it was more personal this time, she still knew what to do. Some of her church members work at the high school where the killing took place. Many others have friends who attend there.
To help them all get through it, she asked two simple questions: “Where have you seen God at work? Where do you want to see God at work?” she said. “We are the hands and feet of Christ.”
And the ears.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s important to listen.”
Pastor Andrea Byer-Thomas of Village UMC in North Lauderdale calls it “a ministry of presence.”
“It’s about holding people,” she said. “It’s about being there for them. At our Sunday service, it was a very moving experience. I could hear the cries and wails of the people.
“One child said to me that every time a door slams, I get scared. We do well to recognize these things. Being there means absorbing a lot of their pain. Although you have to be somewhat clinical about it, this time it’s personal. There is no on-off switch.”
Pastors are human too, and the overwhelming nature of this tragedy has cut deep into their hearts. They know it could take years for a sense of normalcy to return to their community and congregations, but the same could be said for them.
“How do I deal with that? It’s a good question. It’s still very raw here, for everyone,” Rains said. “I ran into a father in a McDonald’s parking lot. He and his daughter had been to two funerals that day. One of the youth in our church had been to a funeral that day too.
“I think the best way we all handle it is by looking to a moment beyond the moment. It’s like God is calling us to address bigger issues, like the gun laws. We have to address our brokenness.”
The madness that caused such pain will never make sense, but the Church will give what it can—unconditional love, comfort and lending its voice for change.
Following the request of Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter, local churches were asked to give “an offering of letters to our government officials, state and national, to prioritize the safety and sanctuary of our children amidst this repetitive and escalating violence.”
There were candlelight vigils. The names of the victims were read aloud during services. And as always, the message was that we could not be separated from the love of Christ that passes all understanding.
“How do we see Jesus now? That’s a good question,” Rains said. “You see it in the love and support from the community. I sense there is moral outrage, so how does the church step up?
“I feel like the church excels in comfort. That’s our comfort zone, so to speak. But what are we called to really do? I think we’re supposed to make a difference for people and society. I believe we can.”
--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.
Editor’s Note: Donate here to the Florida Conference Hurricane Irma Fund to help churches and the neighborhoods that surround them. Volunteer to bring yourself or a team to help with the recovery. Together, with God, we are bigger! #flumcWeAreBigger