Hurting and healing: What my church did after a mass shooting
After the recent tragedy at Michigan State University, a nearby congregation moved quickly and strategically to contact faculty, staff and students, provide comfort dogs to the grieving, and gather and pray, writes the pastor.
“Shots fired and Michigan State’s campus is on lockdown.”
That horrifying text message came from my associate pastor at 8:38 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13. Our community spent the next three hours waiting — and praying — for the active shooter crisis to end. My kitchen table became a makeshift workspace and altar as I began responding to students on campus by text, sending out emails and praying for God’s mercy.
At 11:49 p.m., it finally ended. We learned, first from police scanners and then from the local media, that the shooter had taken his own life 3 miles from campus. Four people were dead —three students and the perpetrator — and five others injured.
But really, the end of the immediate crisis was only the start of the hurting and weeping, serving and ministering for our community.
Our congregation, St. Luke Lutheran Church, has two campuses. One is just east of Michigan State University, and the other is just west. MSU is at the center of our ministry, not just geographically, but also in our hearts.
Our congregation has many undergrad and graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni — including me. I spent four years at MSU as a graduate student in digital rhetoric while also serving my parish. I learned to love rhetoric and technology in its classrooms. My children and I spend summer days playing tag in the shadows of Beaumont Tower. My wife and I cherish our leisurely strolls through the flowers of Beal Botanical Garden. This place is an extension of our backyard.
One of the very first things that our ministry staff did — even as the police still searched for the killer — was to compile a list of all the MSU students, faculty and staff in our congregation. This enabled us to reach out personally by text and social media.
Though it was late in the evening, our leaders crafted a message that went out by email that night:
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
Sometimes there are no words, only tears. This is a moment where there are no words, but only tears. We weep for those who have died in the events at Michigan State University. We weep for those who were injured. We weep for those who were traumatized, distressed, and in harm’s way. We weep for the entire MSU community, their families, and all who are hurting this evening.
Jesus wept. However, Jesus did not only weep. In the midst of death and hurt and pain, Jesus brought life and peace, calm and healing. Jesus tells us …
- Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
- The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
- I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live …
- Peace, be still.
It concluded with an invitation to a prayer vigil the next morning.
Those first hours were chaotic, but we knew we needed to be strategic. Thinking in terms of concentric circles, we developed a ministry strategy that placed our closest existing relationships in the center (congregation members who study, teach or work at MSU).
The next ring included people we might encounter through the people in the inner ring. For example, a faculty member in our congregation knew an international student in need of help while the campus was closed for a few days.
Finally, the outermost ring was the MSU and Lansing community in general. These concentric circles helped us triage our time and efforts appropriately in the midst of harried days.
With our strategy for ministry in place, we first devoted our attention to caring for our closest existing relationships at MSU. We organized two events. The first was a lament prayer service the day after the shooting. One of our associate pastors put together a service that included Scripture readings and prayer litanies, as well as time for silent prayer.
A few days after the shooting, we invited all of our MSU students, faculty and staff to a time for engaging in conversation and processing what had happened. In order to keep it casual and welcoming, we included a communal meal.
We ate Jimmy John’s (they are college kids, after all) and hung out on couches. There was pain, frustration and sadness, but also a feeling of togetherness and a palpable hope that healing would one day come.
Two texts helped guide our ministry in the days following the shooting. More often than I’d like, I have used a stark word from the Gospel of John to minister to people in times of profound hurt: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). We also took a cue from the book of Job, where it talks about Job’s three friends who “sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13 NRSVUE).
We wanted to listen and weep. We steered away from commenting on what had happened; I’ve found that times of acute crisis call for listening and being present, not speculating and explaining. Instead, we leaned heavily on Scripture, prayer and simply gathering to hurt together.
Our prayers emphasized the healing hope that we have in Jesus, our wounded Savior.
The morning after the shooting, I received a call from the CEO of Lutheran Church Charities. They wanted to know whether we could host several of their Comfort Dog Ministry teams — trained dogs and their handlers experienced in caring for communities after tragedy. We agreed.
And a few hours later, six golden retrievers from around the country descended upon us. As a result of their extensive training, these creatures were incredibly serene and gentle — just what one would want in a time of crisis such as this.
In a situation like a mass shooting, a deluge of outside help can overwhelm a community. However, in this situation, we were able to expedite caring for our folks by connecting people in the community with outside resources.
I spoke with congregation members working at MSU to see whether they wanted a visit from the dogs — an offer that many gladly accepted. Additionally, we used congregational connections at the regional hospital to orchestrate visits there with the golden retrievers.
The dogs, accompanied by their handlers and some of our pastors, visited staff at the hospital, including in the laboratory where victims’ blood types had been processed with extreme speed and precision to prepare for blood transfusions.
It has now been a little over a month since the shooting at MSU. While we are still hurting and processing all that has happened, our congregation has started planning for the future. Sadly, as the recent school shooting in Nashville shows, it’s necessary.
Our staff is preparing scenario planning exercises to think through how we would minister to our community if something similar happened at one of our high schools. We have already begun working with our local school district to serve as a reunification site if the need arises.
Though we are thinking about the future, we are still hurting in the present. Ministering through this pain is something that is measured in months and years, not hours and days. We are lingering with our people, together, to hurt and to heal.
We preach about this in sermons. We pray about this in worship. And we continue to meet in small groups to process the pain.
As we grieve, however, we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Instead, we are hurting and healing with our eyes on Jesus.