Students and community members hold hands in prayer before classes at Paducah Tilghman High School in Paducah, Ky., Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. The gathering was held for the victims of the Marshall County High School shooting on Tuesday. (Ryan Hermens/The Paducah Sun via AP)

3 lessons from a pastor up close to the Kentucky school shooting

(RNS) — As the shots rang out through Marshall County High School, shock waves simultaneously reverberated throughout all of Marshall County as one fact was becoming increasingly clear: Our county would never be the same.

The sirens of emergency vehicles began to flood the campus of the school as first responders rushed to the scene Tuesday morning (Jan. 23). Ambulances and helicopters were dispatched from area hospitals to the crime scene.

These were followed shortly by the barrage of news vans that were seeking to tell the tragic story: Two of our students had been fatally wounded and multiple others had been injured as yet another school shooting had transpired.

How does this happen in our hometown? We read about it and see it all too frequently on the news in other parts of the nation. But not here, not in our home. What are we to do with a tragedy of this magnitude in our community?

On day one of the aftermath, I've seen our county step up and once again remind me that this is the greatest place in the nation to live. The strength and resolve of our community can be seen through the bravery and leadership of our first responders, school administration and teachers, and everyday citizens. Marshall County truly is a great place.

But as a pastor of a church only a couple of hundred yards from the school, I wonder: What is the role of the faith community in a tragedy such as this?

How can we work together as a faith community to help serve and minister to people in the grip of shock, pain, emotional trauma, grief and loss?

Here are a few lessons that I have already learned this week:

First of all, the main thing needed is unity. Christianity is often known for the petty things that we allow to divide us, and it is unfortunate that it takes something of this magnitude to remind us of the one thing that unites us all as believers. It is a true honor to stand united with leaders from other denominations and churches ministering love to those who need it the most.

Today, two days after the shooting, pastors from multiple denominations and churches will stand together at a local venue to pour love on our community.

A woman wipes tears from her eye during a prayer vigil at Briensburg Baptist Church near Benton, Ky., on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. Bailey Nicole Holt and Preston Ryan Cope, both 15, were killed and another 17 people injured when a classmate opened fire Tuesday morning in the Marshall County High School atrium, a common area at the school where several hallways meet and students gather before classes. (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Prayer has reminded me of another lesson this week. When you can’t do anything else, pray! There is a true strength and healing that can only be found in prayer. It is the true ability to release our hurting and helpless state into the loving arms of God. Prayer vigils spontaneously popped up in schools around our area and in multiple area churches. The goal of these vigils was simply to release our hurt into Jesus’ hands and to believe Him for redemption of our county and to pray for healing for all of the victims' families. The vigils were safe havens for hurting people.

Lastly, the one thing that cannot be robbed from us is hope. There are times that the picture around us is so bleak that we often lose sight of something better or any amount of normalcy ever returning again. Hope gives us the courage to rise from the ashes in a certainty that God has heard our cry and somehow He will heal us.

Through unity, prayer and a message of healing and hope we are resolved that the horror that shook our county on Jan. 23 will not be the end of our story, but rather the forging of a new Marshall County. Though we have lost much, we will rise!

(The Rev. Richie Clendenen is the senior pastor of Christian Fellowship Ministries in Benton, Ky. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. Unity (amongst christians?), prayer and hope. – that’s it?

    Nothing about making it harder for potential murderers to get the weapons they crave?

    Nothing about educating people about the realities of the one life we have rather than pretending that there is a loving, caring, omnipotent God who will gather the dead into his non-existent arms (whilst doing nothing to avert the next tragedy).

    It’s not the Christians who are ineffective – it’s the God they’ve been mis-sold.

  2. Here’s a lesson I learned from this story: notwithstanding the existence of Temple Israel, the Islamic Society of Paducah, and others as well I’m sure, “the faith community” apparently is for Christians only.

  3. The Pastor said ..

    -> “…When you can’t do anything else, pray! …”

    …That is the one of the primary reasons why school shootings will continue in the future. Once the praying stops and the action begins…there can be progress !!

  4. One of the things you might contemplate is the advise that Jesus is said to have given to Peter. He gave this advice as the Roman Legion came to take him away for his crucifixion. When Peter said, let’s fight the ba*^%*.

    “Put up your sword”

    In terms that a Christian should be able to grok; Gun Control. Effective gun control stops this kind of evil barbarity. But if the slaughter of twenty young children doesn’t bring that about, you may as well pray.

  5. “What is the role of the faith community in a tragedy such as this?
    How can we work together as a faith community to help serve and minister to people in the grip of shock, pain, emotional trauma, grief and loss?”

    I was reading an article somewhere today about this generation having the highest incidence of suicide- if I can find it, I’ll post it
    When you take away people’s hope and the reality that things can be better, if not here, then in the afterlife, if you belong to Jesus, this is to be expected.

    What Christians can do is teach people that we have hope and there is a hope greater than them.
    As Christ taught with the Great Commission, we can belong to Someone bigger and we do not need to rely on ourselves. Murdering someone is relying on yourself.
    Christ taught that He will take care of His.
    So I would say the church’s role is to evangelize and not let people lose hope, as this culture has tried so hard to promote.

  6. I have the deepest sympathy for the victims, their friends and families, and the entire community. I can only imagine the dreadful shock, pain, and grief they are enduring. It’s high time for all of us to put aside this “how could it happen here?” thinking. This was the eleventh school shooting in the U.S. since January 1st, and the month isn’t even over. It can, and does, happen everywhere, with staggering frequency. No community is immune. It will continue to happen, with sickening and deadly regularity, until we as a nation decide to get serious about our gun laws. Because the way things stand now, we’re all just sitting ducks awaiting the next bloodbath, and it’s only a matter of time.

  7. While I understand that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is usually offered in a well meant manner by compassionate people who wish to express their heartfelt sympathy and condolences, I’m sorry to say I’m tired of hearing it. It’s all too predictable, and has become a sickening cliché. There’s a horrifying episode of gun violence, people die, others are maimed and traumatized for life, including their families, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, then there is an outpouring of grief and sympathy. “Thoughts and prayers!”, “Thoughts and prayers!”, “Thoughts and prayers!”. And nothing happens until the next shooting. The cycle is repeated over and over. Something has to change, because no matter how sincere the expression, it’s clearly not working.

  8. What is the role of the faith community in this?

    In Virginia, they just passed a law in the senate to allow guns in churches.

  9. As far as I am concerned, prayer is what people do when they really don’t want to do anything, but don’t want to appear to be uncaring bastards who don’t really want to do anything because they don’t actually care.

  10. Well I think some people take it seriously, and mean it as a heartfelt expression of grief and sympathy for those who are grieving. But it amounts to the same. While I imagine many people who are victims, and I obviously include not just those who were there and were seriously hurt, but all those affected, family, friends, etc., welcome the expressions of support and well-wishes, it doesn’t actually DO anything to prevent or minimize the next crime. I’m a paid member of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. It’s the least I can do to help support real political efforts to curb these regular bloodbaths.

  11. I agree. Some people do take it seriously and heartfeltly. But thoughts and prayers fo4 the latest victims of gun violence, while being absolutely opposed to addressing a major cause of gun violence- easy access to GUNS— strikes me as neither serious not heartfelt.

  12. “Thoughts and prayers!” I wonder if they’ll ever get as sick of saying it as I am of hearing it?

  13. As concealed carry laws have been liberalized in almost every state, and the supply of guns has increased, gun violence has decreased.

    That seems to contraindicate that “easy access to GUNS” is the problem.

  14. Yes, because in the cases of people in churches being slaughtered, the presence of guns (in one case an off-duty officer) in the hands of law-abiding citizens at the very moment the shooting began ended the slaughter by a non-law-abiding citizen.

  15. As usual, your words are hollow.
    You know NOTHING about this community…NOTHING. So shut it with your unqualified advice for it, just shut it…please.

  16. Who bears the liability when the good guy with a gun has shitty aim and cripples or kills an innocent pew sitter? Or when the good guy with a gun panics from lack of muscle memory having had no active shooter drills…ever? Or when the good guy with a gun drops it and severely injuries the mother of the bride? Actually happened about an hour from my town ’cause the country sheriff allowed his Barney Fife to carry a loaded weapon.

  17. “gun violence has decreased” – and your evidence is?

    “In 2016, there were more than 38,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. — 4,000 more than 2015, the new CDC report on preliminary mortality data shows. Most gun-related deaths — about two-thirds —in America are suicides, but an Associated Press analysis of FBI data shows there were about 11,000 gun-related homicides in 2016, up from 9,600 in 2015. The increase in gun-related deaths follows a nearly 15-year period of relative stasis.

    “The fact that we are seeing increases in the firearm-related deaths after a long period where it has been stable is concerning,” Bob Anderson, chief of mortality statistics at the CDC’s Center for Health Statistics, told the New York Times. ”

  18. BACK OFF. You know absolutely NOTHING about any of this, trust me.
    No clue in your black mercenary heart about any of this.

  19. No. Christ is the way and the only way to be saved.

  20. You failed to note that the article states that “the data was not broken down by states, which each have different levels of comprehensiveness in their reporting to the federal agency”, that article states that 1.3 percent is explained by an increase in the shooting of law enforcement officers, that there is no detail provided at the cited url

    except for a sidebar:

    “The crude death rate for firearm-related injury for the 12-month period ending with 2017 Q1 was 12.0, which is higher than the crude death rate of 11.4 for the 12-month period ending with 2016 Q1.”

    As concealed carry laws have been liberalized in almost every state, and the supply of guns has increased, per capita gun violence has decreased over the last several years. Your article states that “The increase in gun-related deaths follows a nearly 15-year period of relative stasis.” which actually describes a drop in per capita deaths.

    The data to analyze the increases in 2016 and 2017 are not yet available.

  21. The good guy with shitty aim, generally. There are exceptions, but I am not sure that getting shot by the bad guy is an improvement.

    Do you have an actual case in mind?

    I have several cases supporting my comments in mind and will be glad to provide one or five.

  22. I agree that there does seem to be some degree of obfuscation in the reporting. It doesn’t necessarily support your argument.

    The reality is that gun violence is endemic in the US. Even were there a marginal (temporary?) dip in reported figures the truth is that the rate of gun violence in the US is greater than that in countries with reasonable controls on gun ownership by a factor of several.
    “Compared to 22 other high-income nations, the United States’ gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher”

    Prayer, unity, hope and relaxing-gun-carry-laws aren’t working to keep your citizens safe, they never have worked and never will work.

    Australia sorted its gun-violence problem – the US could do also – but it won’t/can’t happen through prayer, unity, hope and relaxing-gun-carry-laws.

  23. I’d recommend prayers and then work towards the goal of ending unfettered ownership of guns. Perhaps the church’s role is to remind people that Jesus told Peter to put down his sword.

  24. Perhaps the church is here to bring disciples for Christ who will encourage more people to follow Him, thus showing respect, not hatred for others.

  25. I would rather it be the following the Great Commandment through example rather than respect.

  26. Linda….it’s more important for people to be saved than loved all the way to Hell.

  27. Pray for our national leadership to see the wisdom of the need to manage weapons in some way to minimize the damage the country is esperiencing from people who have lost all hope.

  28. Thoughts and prayers for you that you no longer get sick of hearing it. ???

  29. The obfuscation means you haven’t supported your argument. It resulted from attempting to spin the data and report into something it was not.

    Gun violence is higher in the US than in many countries, and has ALWAYS been higher than in those other countries. That is independent of gun laws in other countries which have lower rates of gun violence, and always have been lower.

    What is lacking is a cause and effect relationship between gun ownership and gun violence or gun laws and gun violence.

    Switzerland and Israel, for example, have high rates of gun ownership and low rates of gun violence.

    Australia did not have a gun problem BEFORE its change in laws, so it is hardly surprising it lacked one AFTER its change in laws. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

    From the moral perspective, everyone has the right to self-defense, which in the US is confirmed as a legal right which is constitutionally protected.

  30. If, as you say, gun violence has ALWAYS been higher in the US it demonstrates a dismal and longstanding story of failure to address the human tragedy of unnecessary death, despair and destruction within its own borders.

    I imagine that both Swiss and Israeli would recoil in horror at being in any way compared with Americans. The whole tenor of those societies is markedly different particularly in respect to general education.

    Putting it bluntly – the more people have access to guns the more likely gun violence is – if you disagree look at Australia
    re Australia – you are wrong.

    Self defence only requires guns in situations where one is likely to be threatened with a gun. AFAIK all nations regard self-defence as a right – but we, at least, require that the force used in self-defence be proportionate to the force involved in the threat. Remove the guns from the aggressor and the defender doesn’t have the right to use one either.

    I know it wouldn’t be easy – but that is no reason to sanction further tragedy because, be clear on this, doing nothing (inc. praying) is effectively an endorsement of the perpetuation of the blight violence imposes on society.

  31. No. There were 11 school shootings in the first 23 days of this year. School shootings are so routine they barely make the front page.

    As guns increase, gun deaths increase.

  32. There was the guy who accidentally shot his wife in church.

    A man accidentally shot himself and his wife in their Tennessee church after he had taken his gun out during a discussion about weapons in places of worship, police said.

    The man, 81, and his wife, 80, both suffered non-life-threatening injuries, police said.

    The incident happened Thursday afternoon as members of the First United Methodist Church in Tellico Plains — about 60 miles southwest of Knoxville — were gathered at the church for a pre-Thanksgiving lunch, Tellico Plains Police Department Chief Russ Parks told ABC News.

    And toddlers kill people at least once a week.

  33. No, the evidence that “(a)s guns increase, gun deaths increase” is non-existent.

    “Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was ‘used’ by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”

    “Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million per year…in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008.”

    “The number of public mass shootings of the type that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School accounted for a very small fraction of all firearm-related deaths. Since 1983 there have been 78 events in which 4 or more individuals were killed by a single perpetrator in 1 day in the United States, resulting in 547 victims and 476 injured persons.”

    “Unintentional firearm-related deaths have steadily declined during the past century. The number of unintentional deaths due to firearm-related incidents accounted for less than 1 percent of all unintentional fatalities in 2010.”

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