AURORA, Colo. (RNS) Worshippers in this city rocked by Friday’s (July 20) mass shooting flocked to church Sunday, seeking solace within their faith communities.
“People are saying that if there’s a day to go to church, this is it,” says Allie McNider, associate pastor at Mississippi Avenue Baptist Church, about a mile from the movie theater where police say James Holmes opened fire, killing 12 people and wounding 58 more. “They’re looking for a sense of something bigger than themselves.”
Meanwhile, in Rancho Penasquitos, Calif., a San Diego suburb and the hometown of alleged shooter James Holmes, Pastor Greg Hoffmann prayed with his congregation at Penasquitos Lutheran Church, where the Holmes family are members.
Hoffman spoke of the pain and shock the church community was feeling. He preached on the verse from Mark in which Jesus tells his disciples to “come with me to a quiet place.”
In Aurora, Mississippi Avenue Pastor Mitch Hamilton said that times of crisis test faith by upending routines and making people question their daily lives.
“No matter what, God is with us. We don’t have to walk through this alone,” Hamilton preached after several days of leading counseling and vigils for the victims and witnesses. “God will not leave us, even in the midst of the darkness.”
Hamilton’s sermon moved some congregants to tears, an outward sign of the grief, fear, anxiety and even anger this community is feeling.
Facebook friends of Rory Miller, who was celebrating his 19th birthday at the theater, have called for Holmes to be beaten or killed and worse. Miller, who was hit with what he thinks were shotgun pellets, said an eye for an eye is not the right approach.
Miller said his experience has renewed his faith in the power of forgiveness and the message of his church. Miller attended a church-sponsored vigil Friday evening, offering prayers for the victims and for Holmes.
“We need to pray for him,” Miller said. “Even being that close, I know he needs help and prayer. I’m still struggling with it. I’m still angry at things. But I know he needs prayer.”
The congregation at Penasquitos Lutheran prayed for both the Holmes family and for the victims and their families in Colorado.
“We may not understand everything that happens” but God is with us, Hoffmann told about 150 parishioners at one of four services the church holds on Sundays.
Hoffmann told the assembled worshippers that he and the other pastors had discussed ignoring the day’s Gospel reading but decided it spoke directly to the occasion.
“Do not be overcome by evil,” he told the congregation. God is with us, and we are united in the body of Christ, he told them.
At an impromptu press conference after the service, Hoffmann faced six TV cameras, saying, “We are standing with the Holmes family and we are standing with the victims and their families.”
In Colorado Springs, New Life Church Senior Pastor Brady Boyd said the shootings brought back many painful memories for members of his church. Less than five years ago, a gunman killed two girls in the parking lot of his church after Sunday service.
Boyd didn’t plan to preach on Friday’s tragedy.
“We talk about it all the time, so I don’t need to explain it to members of the church,” Boyd says. “We understand completely.”
Boyd says they will pray for the victims and their families, as well as pause and reflect on what happened about 50 miles from their homes.
Boyd says he has been in contact with pastors located close to Aurora, offering advice for moving forward. He told them this is painful and difficult for many people and the grieving process cannot be rushed.
Located in the Denver area, Allan Karr, lead mentor of the Ethne Church Network, said he changed the message he planned to send during church services.
Anger or resentment is a natural response for those grieving, but it will not have a positive long-term effect, Karr says, which he planned to make clear during his sermon.
Karr says he also wants people to understand that God did not make or want the shootings to happen.
“God is powerful, but he doesn’t keep people from making evil decisions,” Karr says.
(Trevor Hughes, Elizabeth Weise and Jessica Tully write for USA Today.)