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Lutheran school in Thousand Oaks learns how to grieve after losing one of its own

The California Lutheran University water polo team embraces Justin Meek’s family and other members of the Cal Lutheran community in a large group hug after a service of lament late Nov. 8, 2018, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Meek, a recent graduate who was killed in the bar shooting Wednesday, played water polo at the university. RNS photo by Cathleen Falsani

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (RNS) — “Sovereign God, hear this lament: Why, Lord, has evil seemed to get its way?”

So began the litany of prayers offered by grieving students, faculty, friends and family who packed the chapel at California Lutheran University Thursday night, not quite 24 hours after a mass shooting in a nearby country and western bar claimed the lives of a dozen people, including 2018 Cal Lutheran graduate Justin Meek.

“What should never have happened has happened without our permission and we have been drawn into this terror,” the Rev. Scott Maxwell-Doherty, university pastor, told mourners, many of them young, their wide eyes rimmed in red. They huddled close in the wooden pews, holding hands, arms slung over shoulders as they struggled to process the enormity of the horror that has touched their community.

Like so many of the mass shootings that have become near-daily trauma to the American psyche, the massacre at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif., happened in precisely the kind of place such things aren’t meant to happen.

While this city of 129,000 people sits just 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, it bears little resemblance to its cosmopolitan cousin to the southeast. The Borderline is one of the few establishments in this sleepy suburb that even approximates a nightclub. It caters to a suburban clientele with relatively chaste entertainment options such as line dancing.

That’s what had drawn students from nearby Cal Lutheran and Pepperdine University — both Christian schools where on-campus partying is frowned upon — to a College Country Night on Wednesday when a gunman entered the bar shortly after 11:15 p.m. and opened fire.

More than a dozen Pepperdine students were at the Borderline when the shooting occurred. Eighteen-year-old Alaina Housley, a Pepperdine freshman from Napa, Calif., lost her life.

“We can be assured that there will be very few answers to the questions that bloom inside of us. And we can be assured that God will not leave us alone in those questions,” Maxwell-Doherty told those gathered to grieve at Cal Lutheran late Thursday. “Sisters and brothers, while our friends did not die separated from our love or the love of God, so we will not be separated from God while we grieve their deaths.”

Among the mourners in the university’s Samuelson Chapel were several young people, including current students who were inside the Borderline when the alleged gunman, Ian David Long, 28, a former Marine who had served as a machine gunner in Afghanistan, entered the bar, shot the bouncer, set off smoke bombs, and began emptying his .45-caliber Glock 21 with an extended magazine into the crowd. Long reportedly took his own life at the scene.

Justin Meek. Photo via Facebook

So far, no clear motive for the mass shooting has emerged.

Even if the reasons were obvious, it wouldn’t matter, because it is impossible to make sense of the senseless, said Rabbi Belle Michael, Cal Lutheran’s campus rabbi, who co-presided at the service of lament and a campus vigil earlier Thursday.

While affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Cal Lutheran is religiously diverse, including various Protestant and Catholic traditions, and with about 1 percent of its more than 4,000 students identifying as Jewish. The school’s campus ministry staff also includes a Muslim life coordinator.

“Big questions about where was God, and God’s presence, and God’s provision … where was God as a protector? These are tough questions,” Michael said, adding that they remind her of something the great Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said after the Holocaust.

“People asked him where God was during the Holocaust,” she said. “And he says, ‘Where was man?’ His whole theme is that God calls us to be partners with God. Where were we? We cannot solve everything, but there are things we are doing for each other, and there is more to do,” she said.

“I don’t have good answers. Nobody has. And if anybody tells you they have…” the rabbi said, her voice trailing off as a spontaneous gathering of members from the university’s choir began to sing the hymn “How Great Thou Art” a few yards away.

Meek was a longtime member of the choir, where he sang bass, and also performed in quartets and other university vocal ensembles.

“He had a beautiful voice,” said Hannah Karzin, 22, a longtime friend and classmate of Meek who sang in the choir with him for three years and graduated with him last spring. “He’s the kind of person you have to invent words to describe. He was belove-able.”

Meek was larger than life — a “big teddy bear” of a man who loved to sing and dance and cook, played water polo and volunteered his time helping veterans, Karzin said. He was the promoter for special events such as college night and Stagecoach Takeover Night at the Borderline, where Meek delighted in teaching novices how to line dance.

“Every Wednesday you’d wait for an Instagram from Justin saying, ‘Come on down to the Borderline, it’s college night!” she said.

“It was basically an extension of campus … everyone’s been there at least once,” she said, adding that for many regulars “it was a sacred place.”

Wednesday’s massacre was the 307th mass shooting of 2018. Among those killed were Telemachus Orfanos, a 27-year-old Navy veteran who had survived the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas last year.

People gather to pray for the victims of a mass shooting during a candlelight vigil in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2018. A gunman opened fire Wednesday evening inside a country music bar, killing multiple people, including a responding sheriff’s sergeant. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

“I hope to God no one sends me any more prayers,” his mother, Susan Orfanos, told ABC7 News in Los Angeles on Thursday. “I want gun control. No more guns!”

At Thursday’s “service of lament” at Cal Lutheran, Meek’s family — including his mother, Laura, an Air Force veteran who also graduated from the university in May, his sister (a current Cal Lutheran student) and the family dog — sat in a front pew in the chapel where a steady stream of well-wishers stopped to embrace, pray for and weep with them.

“The people who did the most for us tonight were Justin’s family because it takes a lot of bravery and vulnerability and openness to grieve in community,” said the Rev. Hazel Salazar-Davidson, one of Cal Lutheran’s campus ministers.

“They cried, they sobbed. They laughed. They sang. They told stories and that was beautiful,” Salazar-Davidson said. “They were able to bring their whole selves and that was a gift.”

Salazar-Davidson, who joined the Cal Lutheran campus ministry staff in August after completing her graduate studies at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, was ordained as an ELCA minister last week — just five days before the Borderline shootings. She and Maxwell-Doherty, who has served the Cal Lutheran community for 18 years, were in Wisconsin at a denominational meeting when news of the tragedy reached them in the early hours Thursday.

They caught the first flight home to Los Angeles, planning the service of lament along the way, even as their drive from the airport back to campus became something of an apocalyptic quest as raging wildfires closed roads throughout the Simi and San Fernando valleys.

On Friday morning, one of the wildfires had escalated to such an extent that the city of Malibu, where Pepperdine is located, was under an evacuation order. Pepperdine students and faculty were asked to shelter in place in field houses on campus, while firefighters from all over southern California fought the blaze.

The most important spiritual messages the chaplains wanted their reeling university community to hear was that they are not alone and that they have to grieve.

“Grief is a challenge because it can come in different ways and show up at different times that are unexpected,” said Salazar-Davidson, whose husband died in a car accident three years ago.

“You have these moments where you’re thinking about these really happy memories and you’re laughing and that’s grief, and sometimes you’re really pissed off and that’s grief,” she said. “And sometimes you’re incredibly sad and have no words and that’s grief, and sometimes you get to wail and that is grief. I wanted to make sure that the family and the community were able to hear that because … in America, we don’t do that.”

After the service adjourned, mourners lingered in the sanctuary where Meek’s mother briefly joined choir members for an impromptu hymn sing, while a dozen grieving students curled up on the floor of the narthex with several golden retrievers brought to the chapel by the Lutheran Church Comfort Dog Ministry.

Taped to the wall of the chapel, not far from an elaborate altar that still stood from the Day of the Dead earlier this month, was a handcrafted sign that read “Gratitude,” inviting students to leave their thoughts on this unthinkable day.

The first comment read: “I am grateful to be here.”

About the author

Cathleen Falsani

Cathleen Falsani is a veteran religion journalist and author, specializing in the intersection of spirituality and culture. She lives in Southern California.

37 Comments

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  • There is a time to grieve, though it never really ends, but rather receces. Then there comes time to act to reduce the probability that others suffer as you do.

    Thoughts, prayers, and ever-more guns have proven ineffective. It’s past time for a more efficacious response. Red-flag laws are a start, as are biometric trigger locks, better and periodically updated background checks, and laws mandating safe firearms storage.

  • Biometric trigger locks?

    Do you even know how they work, and their level of failure?

    Why not arrest and incarcerate bad people, starting in Chicago where gun users are typically back out on the street in hours or days?

  • My idea: Mandatory liability insurance.

    This way we build up national level gun ownership data necessary to cut the “iron pipeline” of straw buying and smuggling guns across state lines. All done without the bullcrap fear of “confiscation”. We create financial incentives to safe gun storage and disincentives towards gun hoarding.

  • It’s time to acknowledge that nobody has any answers, humanly speaking, on this shooting epidemic. One simply asks, “Specifically which laws of ANY kind would have stopped this specific shooter from doing the Thousand Oaks crime”?

    Granted, outright repealing the 2nd Amendment, plus a door-to-door government confiscation of all legally or illegally owned guns — all of them no matter what — might make a dent. But since nobody’s selling that notion, and absolutely nobody’s buying that notion, that pretty much leaves us with Crickets Chirping. And like I said, the next gig is already being scheduled.

    By the way, the lower-income, law-abiding people ain’t stupid. They know that proposed “liability insurance” on guns will effectively price THEM out of the 2nd Am — but all the rapists, robbers and walking timebombs will continue to own guns.

  • Folks in WA State passed an initiative last Tuesday which adds some levels of security to the availability of guns. The age to buy a semi-automatic weapon is now 21. The buyer must pass an extended background check. The buyer must provide verifiable bevidense of taking & passing a fire-arms handling course and then wait 10 days before being given possession of the weapon.

    Additionally, gun owners are required to secure all weapons in their possession by using a safe, a gun safe or trigger locks. The law creates a new crime of gross misdemeanor or fellony community endangerment. With proof of failure to secure their weapons, the gun owners will be charged.

    The people also pakssed another initiative that makes it much easier to charge police officers when they kill someone. No more, “I was in fear of my life,” defense to escape charges.

  • Holding gun manufactures, gun dealers from store owners to private dealers and gun owners liable would make a big dent on the sale and distribution of guns. As far as an insurance company, I suppose one would need to be created which would help if all parties to a gun transaction were held liable. Liability would cut down on the number of guns sold by middle and upper income people and companies.

  • When it became apparent that deep-pocket anti-gun lobbyists like Michael Bloomberg were using groundless suits to bankrupt companies selling lawful firearms in accordance with the law, Congress reacted:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protection_of_Lawful_Commerce_in_Arms_Act

    It is unconstitutional to hamper exercise of a right under the Constitution with “strict liability”, insurance requirements, and so on.

    As the law stands if a manufacturer knowing sells firearms to a dealer known to be transshipping them to criminal elements, or selling them to prohibited persons through straw purchases or otherwise, that manufacturer can be sued.

    Much the same applies to gun dealers.

    Gun owners who hand weapons to individuals such as children, or leave them laying about loaded, and so on can also incur penalties.

    Otherwise all three are entitled to exercise their constitutional rights unimpeded and unimpaired.

  • Of course the Washington state initiative immediately came under legal attack, and its operation is currently stayed.

    The “fear for my life” LEO defense is a common law one, and that provision is unlikely to survive legal challenges since it requires superprescience on the part of LEOs and makes it more likely felons will operate unimpaired.

  • i-1639 is now the law in WA State. The age requirement goes into effect on 1 JAN 2019. The law in it’s entirety goes into effect 1 JUL 2019. There is no stay. There will likely be suits filed against the law, but that is another matter. Also, don’t forget that WA State has a very liberal Supreme Court which allowed the initiative to remain on the NOV ballot, overruling a lower court judge’s decision to supress the initiative. And WA State is in the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. This law is here to stay.

    As to I-940, also now the law. It has created a good faith test to determine when the use of deadly force by police is justifiable, require police to receive de-escalation and mental health training, and require law enforcement officers to provide first aid.

  • The new law was crafted with the assistance of law enforcement in this state and was supported by some law enforcement agencies. Basically the law will not allow officers to get away with such things as rolling up on a 12 year old Black child, jumping out of the rolling vehicle and murdering that child.

    Or rolling up on a Native American walking down the street on his way home whitling and 15 seconds later murdering him because he was deaf in one ear, wearing headphones and obviously didn’t hear the officer come up 9′ behind him and order him to drop the legal knife..

  • I would not expect the Washington state Supreme Court to do anything but rubber stamp whatever passed.

    The issues are Federal, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is uber-liberal, but the justices on the Supreme Court who turned down Second Amendment cases after Heller are for the most part gone.

    That means “This law is here to stay” is bravado, nothing more.

    I am reasonably sure you don’t understand the issues surrounding shootings by LEOs beyond reciting some campaign rhetoric and correctly noting the training and first aid requirements.

    Since they are complex I’ll wait until a future RNS article deals with an actual application of the law to comment on those issues.

  • You might take a hard at look at what “law enforcement agencies” supported it.

    The FOP and related LEO unions opposed it.

  • I doubt that there are any constitutional issues actually involved with the new law, as those would have been addressed by the LEOs involved in drafting the law.

    Concerning what I do and don’t understand, you are welcome to your opinion, as that is bravado on your part.

  • Disarming lower-income law-abiding people has been a hallmark of gun control.

    That leaves Dianne Feinstein protected by body guards and poor folks in the projects at the mercy of druggies and thugs.

  • Unless you’ve developed some legal acumen heretofore unexhibited in your posts, “I doubt that there are any constitutional issues involved” doesn’t provide much of note.

    LEOs are law enforcement officers, not constitutional experts, or attorneys of any kind for the most part.

  • Perhaps, but it wasn’t what I am proposing here.

    Actually I am thinking as more of protection to the public and gun owners for negligent and accidental injury and death as well as a national paper trail for theft. Like any kind of property casualty insurance for potentially deadly and expensive personal items.

    The public cannot be asked to bear the cost in injuries and lives from irresponsible gun ownership. The gun owners can’t financially bear such burdens either, nor should they have to suffer collectively for the irresponsible.

    The point is to create national level gun ownership data collection which would red flag and prevent straw buying. All done without raising fears of government confiscation that is typically raised by such efforts.

    The problem of urban gun violence is the problem of the illegal gun trade. A trade enabled by NRA efforts. Ones which made legal gun buyers indistinguishable from illegal straw buyers. Rhetoric which relies on this unfettered violence to spur gun sales for “self defense” in suburban and rural communities.

  • The current mess in Chicago is because the NRA actively enabled it. They oppose all reasonable efforts to stem the illegal gun trade.

  • The media is not telling the truth about what happened. How did 50 Harvest Festival victims just happen to be there? What was going on with the simultaneous mass casualty drill in Salem? Why did the FBI show up before the Oxnard SWAT team arrived? Why were there so many road closures before the event? How did 22 gunshot victims result in not one hospital admission? Why did the LA Sheriff and LAPD not provide support causing a Swat team from Oxnard across the county having to be dispatched and take a circuitous route due to a controlled burn road closure? How did six former Naval Intelligence officers once stationed at Pt. Mugu now working as off-duty police with other forces happen to be in the Bar all without sidearms, not manage to borrow the security guard’s sidearm, and not do anything for fifteen minutes before Officer Helus showed up and walked in through the front door like a sitting duck and didn’t go in with groups of 4 as is standard training? Who was the CHP officer who didn’t coordinate entry with him? Why was there no hospital press conference? How did the LA Media get through when 101 was closed? Why were four different press photgraphers from Ohio and the Eastern Seaboard just happen to be in town?

  • https://www.foxnews.com/us/washington-police-chief-says-he-wont-enforce-stricter-gun-laws-that-infringe-citizens-rights

    “‘I’ve taken 3 public oaths, one in the US Army and Two as a police officer. All of them included upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States of America,’ Culp wrote.”

    “‘As long as I am Chief of Police, no Republic Police Officer will infringe on a citizens right to keep and Bear Arms, PERIOD!’”

    Apparently Sheriff Culp was NOT one of the law enforcement officers who helped draft the law.

  • If a federal coucrt in the US finds the law or portions of the law uncositutional, so be it. Bu until then, I-1639 is the law., by the vote of 60% of the Election Day turnout. Which was high in WA State mid-term elections. You like majorities.

    But I don’ see it. The law doesn’t bar anyone from owning a gun. It bars 18, 19 and 20 yer olds from owning certain long guns.

    On the lead up to Election Day, I’ve seen articles in WA State papers brag that there are legal ways to make the long guns 18 year olds can legally own, function in a similar manner.

    Law enforcement speaking out against the new law has mainly said that they see the law as hard to enforce. Not a constitutional issue.

    The law requires an extensive background check, not a constitutional issue.

    The law requires the purchaser provide proof of passing a firearms handling course. Not a constitutional issue.

    The law requires a 10-day waiting period before the buyer can take possion of the gun. Not a constitutional issue.

    The law allows the state to assess a $25 fee to recoup the cost of the background check & verification of the gun course. Not a tax on a right. Not a constitutional issue.

    I haven’tseen any argumant actually explain how the new law would interfer with interstate commerce, just make the claim.

  • “But I don’ see it.”

    You’re probably unfamiliar with the stare decisis on the Second Amendment:

    https://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/desktop/document/Dist_of_Columbia_v_Heller_554_US_570_128_S_Ct_2783_171_L_Ed_2d_63?1542416294

    should help bring you closer to up-to-speed.

    I particularly draw your attention to “We must also address the District’s requirement (as applied to respondent’s handgun) that firearms in the home be rendered and kept inoperable at all times. This makes it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional.”

    which seems to negate the Washington requirement for gun safes and so on.

  • Your link is specifically about a law with regard to handguns, not long guns.

    What is the case law on rendering long guns safe in storage?

  • Had you actually read the opinion … and I admit it’s tough sledding, it deals with the Second Amendment – long guns, handguns, you name it.

    ***

    Held:

    1. The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. Pp. 576-626.

    (a) The Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms. Pp. 576-595.

    (b) The prefatory clause comports with the Court’s interpretation of the operative clause. The “militia” comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense. The Anti-federalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in order to disable this citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved. Pp. 595-600. [*571]

    (c) The Court’s interpretation is confirmed by analogous arms-bearing rights in state constitutions that preceded and immediately followed the Second Amendment. Pp. 600-603.

    (d) The Second Amendment’s drafting history, while of dubious interpretive worth, reveals three state Second Amendment proposals that unequivocally referred to an individual right to bear arms. Pp. 603-605.

    (e) Interpretation of the Second Amendment by scholars, courts, and legislators, from immediately after its ratification through the late 19th century, also supports the Court’s conclusion. Pp. 605-619.

    (f) None of the Court’s precedents forecloses the Court’s interpretation. Neither United States [****2] v. Cruikshank, 92 U. S. 542, 553, nor Presser v. Illinois, 116 U. S. 252, 264-265, refutes the individual-rights interpretation. United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174, does not limit the right to keep and bear arms to militia purposes, but rather limits the type of weapon to which the right applies to those used by the militia, i. e., those in common use for lawful purposes. Pp. 619-626.

    ***

    Note that the holding makes NO distinction between handguns and long guns.

  • I see that the link states that requiring a weapon to be disassembled, unloaded or encumbered by a trigger lock, would be a violation of the 2nd Amendment, but I missed any prohibition to requiring the safe storage of the weapon in a safe or gunsafe.

  • I suppose if the armed individual with a string of felony convictions were between you and the safe you’d see the problem.

    Too late, of course.

  • The answer is: all your assumptions and premises are false, unproven and likely deliberately fictitious.

    People talking about a mainstream media cover up are generally talking out of their sphincters. Usually citing highly unreliable or outright questionable sources for the basis of their conspiracy theories and filtering out any facts which do not match their narrative.

  • The problem with these clearly staged events to promote the political objectives of the Governor and Intelligence agencies is they breed copycat crimes like Orlando and Sutherland Springs. This school should be ashamed of itself.

  • When the government turns on you and it is too late, you will be happy to know the fissure in my spinchter has been cured by a very fine private sector proctologist. That and prayer.

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