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Multifaith leaders urge unity in aftermath of Monterey Park shooting that left 11 dead

To Chuching Wang, who helped organize the vigil, it was deeply moving to see people of different ethnicities and religions unite in the aftermath of the shooting that struck the Chinese American community.

Kenny Loo, 71, prays outside Star Ballroom Dance Studio on Jan. 23, 2023, for the victims killed two days before in the shooting in Monterey Park, California. Authorities searched for a motive for the gunman who killed multiple people at the ballroom dance studio during Lunar New Year celebrations, slayings that sent a wave of fear through Asian American communities and cast a shadow over festivities nationwide. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. (RNS) — The pews at St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church were emptier than usual Sunday morning (Jan. 22) as news spread that a gunman responsible for killing 11 people at a nearby Monterey Park dance studio remained at large.

Star Ballroom Dance Studio, where 72-year-old Huu Can Tran opened fire, is less than half a mile from the church, and some parishioners skipped Mass out of fear the gunman “might pop up in a place where a lot of us are congregating,” said the Rev. Joseph Magdaong, who pastors St. Stephen Martyr.

In response to the shooting, Magdaong will celebrate a special Mass on Friday “to pray for the victims and for all of us to be strong and to have the faith that we need to be able to heal and make sense of this tragedy.”

Magdaong was among the Christian and Jewish leaders who attended a candlelight vigil Monday night at Monterey Park City Hall to accompany residents as they mourned the 11 slain victims, who were in their 50s, 60s and 70s. The death toll rose to 11 on Monday after one of the people who was wounded died. 

To Magdaong, it was important to be there to represent his parish — which serves as a hub for Indonesians in the area — and to make a “statement that the Catholic Church is also one with the community.” Monterey Park, in Los Angeles County’s San Gabriel Valley, is regarded as America’s first “suburban Chinatown.”

The Rev. Joseph Magdaong addresses a candlelight vigil at Monterey Park City Hall on Monday night, Jan. 23, 2023. RNS photo by Alejandra Molina

The Rev. Joseph Magdaong addresses a candlelit vigil at Monterey Park City Hall Jan. 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, California. RNS photo by Alejandra Molina

Magdaong led attendees in a prayer Monday night and said his church, which will be hosting rosary services for the victims, would also be praying for the gunman “to be able to put this into something positive.”

Elected leaders including Rep. Judy Chu and Torrance Mayor George Chen were at the vigil. The gunman died of a self-inflicted wound in a strip mall parking lot in Torrance, a city about 25 miles south of Monterey Park.

“This community is resilient,” Chu said.

A makeshift vigil grew throughout the night as residents placed votive candles, flowers and balloons outside City Hall. Eleven white stands representing the fatal victims stood along the vigil. Most were unmarked as only four of the victims — My Nhan, 65; Lilan Li, 63; Xiujuan Yu, 57; and Valentino Alvero, 68 — had been identified as of Monday night. Inscribed on the stands was Bible verse Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

“We never thought that it would be one of us. And it’s so shocking, we can’t accept it,” Ann Lau, an organizer of the vigil, told reporters Monday night.

A couple of activists held a red sign that read, “The Problem Is Guns,” and yelled that they needed more than just prayers.

Rabbi Len Muroff spoke at the vigil, telling residents that “the Jewish community is standing at your side.”

“I wish it was the first time that I was speaking to a group when there was a tragedy, but a few years ago when the (Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina) was pulling people together after the shootings … I said then what I say now in terms of offering support from the Jewish community … that we are all created in God’s image,” Muroff said.

“We have to work hard … to bring about the peace and quiet and the repair to broken hearts for other people, the same way that we do it for our own,” Muroff added.

Rabbi Ralph Resnick spoke of his ties to the San Gabriel Valley, where he grew up in Pasadena and attended Hebrew school in the city of Alhambra, adjacent to Monterey Park. Resnick leads services at a congregation in nearby West Covina.

People gather for a vigil honoring the victims of a mass shooting at Star Ballroom Dance Studio, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, Calif. A gunman killed multiple people late Saturday amid Lunar New Year's celebrations in the predominantly Asian American community. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

People gather for a vigil honoring the victims of a mass shooting at Star Ballroom Dance Studio, Jan. 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, California. A gunman killed multiple people late Saturday amid Lunar New Year’s celebrations in the predominantly Asian American community. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Resnick urged solidarity among the different ethnicities and religions represented at the vigil.

“I can safely say that every single one of us came from someplace else, but we all came to be here together because this was a land that would accept all of us and it’s so sad that at this time, the event that brought us together might separate us,” he said.

“You must love your neighbor as yourself,” Resnick added. “You can see every color, every religion, every belief system gathered here together because we’re here together to make sure that this never happens again.”

To Chuching Wang, who helped organize the vigil, it was deeply moving to see people of different ethnicities and religions unite in the aftermath of the shooting that struck the Chinese American community. Wang appreciated the Spanish-speaking residents who were there and said it was the first time he connected with Jewish leaders.

“That gave me more confidence among the community,” Wang said. “Hopefully, we can all come together to overcome the fear and can cope with tragedy much better.”

“It feels like we are one big family,” he said.

A group of clergy from nearby Pasadena also descended to Monterey Park on Sunday to pray with residents and city leaders.

Known as the Clergy Community Coalition, the group has been active in rent control advocacy and policing justice issues in Pasadena, where a controversial fatal police shooting killed 32-year-old Anthony McClain in 2020.

Pastor John Lo, of Epicentre Church in Pasadena, said the church has learned over time that “when tragedy happens, the church has to be there.”

“We have to be there to cry with people. We have to be there to lament. We have to be there to … say ‘we’re sorry, things have to be better,’” Lo said.

This story has been updated.

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