After a lone gunman entered a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., early on July 20, killing a dozen people, the stunned community rallied to support survivors, pray for those who lost loved ones and prepare for a vigil that evening at the city municipal building.
United Methodist-related Iliff School of Theology kept its chapel open for prayer all day.
News reports said the shooter tossed tear gas before opening fire on the terrified audience. Dozens of theater-goers, including a 3-month-old baby, were wounded. Federal law-enforcement officers identified the shooter as James Holmes, 24.
Emma Goos, 19, daughter of the Rev. Ken Berve, was attending the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises with several friends when the gunman entered the theater, walked past them and began shooting.
“Emma got out of the theater and immediately called us,” said Mr. Berve, pastor of Grant Avenue United Methodist Church in Denver.
“My wife, Judy, and I were sitting at home, just a few blocks from the theater, when we started hearing sirens.” They headed to Gateway High School, where police interviewed Emma and other survivors.
“It was a long night,” Mr. Berve said.
The Rev. Steve Goodier, Denver Metro District superintendent, said he and his colleagues were trying to learn if any United Methodists were among the dead or injured. But at times like this, he said, denominational divisions don’t matter. He cited the example of local pastor Elizabeth Jackson.
“United Methodist clergy don’t just minister to their own parishioners,” Mr. Goodier said hours after the shootings. “Elizabeth knows 12 people who were at the theater. I believe six were shot, and three of those are in surgery or in the hospital. Elizabeth is at the hospital now, sitting with families and doing the hard work of pastoral care to folk outside the United Methodist Church. So her work is reaching people who are, in some cases, just beginning their Christian journey. And that is where the church needs to be.”
The Rev. Steven Mitchell serves Mountain View United Church, Aurora. Mountain View is an ecumenical congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church, and Mr. Mitchell is a UCC pastor.
Incidents like this “are really heartbreaking,” he said. “It makes you feel very vulnerable about going to public places. You realize how easily you could be targeted for no apparent reason and see how tragic it is for all of the families affected.”
Mr. Mitchell said he has been doing a sermon series based on “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell.” Ironically, the topic for Sunday, July 22, was to be hell. While we need to understand that hell is real, Mr. Mitchell noted, we need to “spread the love of Jesus Christ as much as possible.”
“Whenever we’re ministering to others, we’re actually ministering to Christ. That’s the counteraction to hell.”
Prayers, calls to action
The Rev. Gil Caldwell was pastor of Park Hill United Methodist Church, Denver, when the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School occurred, just 20 miles from Aurora. Reflecting on the latest tragedy, he said, “Today, regardless of who we are, where we live or what our politics may be, we are all ‘family.’
“And even though it is a greater challenge, my Christian faith compels me to remember the one who did the killing as well as his family. Tragedies like this evoke anger, questions and doubts in most of us. But my faith keeps me from falling victim to hatred.”
Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence issued a statement. “We . . . hold in prayer the victims and families of the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colo. Like all those who suffer from gun violence, we appreciate the expressions of grief and concern from our nation’s leaders. But, these expressions are not enough. Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence pledges to work with our nation’s leaders to do all we can to make sure that tragedies like this do not happen again.” James Winkler, who heads the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, is chair of the religious coalition.
The Board of Church and Society also called on Congress to stand up to the gun lobby and pass “common-sense policies” to ensure public safety.
On the campaign trail in Fort Myers, Fla., President Barack Obama turned attention to the tragedy. “It’s what we do on a daily basis to give our lives meaning and to give our lives purpose—that’s what matters,” he said. “At the end of the day, what we’ll remember will be those we loved and what we did for others. That’s why we’re here.”
Church leaders respond
News of the shootings cast a somber tone at the UMC’s Western Jurisdictional gathering, as delegates began their session July 20 by praying for those involved. Other jurisdictions also held moments of prayer.
“Precious children of a loving God died violently last night in Aurora, Colo.,” Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, whose area includes Colorado, said in a statement. “Each life taken is a reminder of God’s amazing and limitless love and grace, and the tragedy of just one person who wanders off into the darkness of fear and hate. And so we pray.
“God, you create a beautiful world. And you give breath to all who breathe. Thank you for every unrepeatable moment of life that we receive. Thank you for the miracle that each moment of every life is. Pick up and carry each one who fell to a gunman’s violence last night. Send your healing mercy to those who were harmed. And shine a light into the darkness where James Holmes wanders lost, and lead him even now on a path of peace.”
The Rev. Kent Millard, retired senior pastor of St. Luke’s UMC in Indianapolis, is serving as an interim pastor this summer at St. Andrew UMC in Denver, Colo. He is challenging his congregations there to do random acts of kindness to “overcome evil with good” in the Denver area.