Church leaders express grief, call for action after Florida high school mass shooting

February 15, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal bishops are arranging for services of lamentation at churches around the country in the wake of the shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 students and faculty members dead, and the bishops and other church leaders are calling for political action against gun violence to end “these lethal spasm of violence in our country.”

“The heart of our nation has been broken yet again by another mass shooting at an American school,” Bishops United Against Gun Violence, a coalition of more than 70 Episcopal bishops, said in a statement released Feb. 16 following the Ash Wednesday massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

A former student, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, has been charged with 17 counts of murder after authorities say he opened fire with an AR-15 rifle in hallways and classrooms before ditching his gun and ammunition and blending in with students to escape. He was found and arrested on a city street later in the day.

Fourteen of the fatal victims were students. A football coach, athletic director and geography teacher also were killed.

Bishops United offered condolences to the families, singling out by name Carmen Schentrup, a 16-year-old student who was a youth group leader at St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs.

The Coral Springs church posted news of Schentrup’s death Feb. 15 on Facebook.

“Please keep our entire church family in your prayers,” the Facebook post said while asking the public to respect the family’s privacy.

The Diocese of Southeast Florida, which includes Parkland and Coral Springs, released a statement Feb. 15 expressing grief at the “horrific massacre of innocents.”

“There are no words that can adequately give voice to the madness and the violence done to those gunned down, and to their families and friends so cruelly robbed of those they loved,” the statement says. “There are no words to describe the pain of loss and grief, of shock and horror, of outrage and anger, only the anguished cries that well up from the very depths of our being. There are no words to make sense of what makes no sense, and in the face of such senseless killing we are numbed and rendered speechless.”

Bishop Peter Eaton followed up Feb. 16 by saying Christians’ faith will help guide their response to this tragedy, and “we bring more than our prayers.”

“We bring our longings and convictions for a different future,” he said in his written statement on the shooting. “What happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is not the world as it ought to be, or as it needs to be, and we who follow Jesus accept the responsibility for being partners with God to bridge that gap between what is and what could and ought to be.”

Also Feb. 15, Washington National Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith released a written prayer asking God to comfort those affected by the shooting spree while alluding to the political debates that typically are ignited by such killings.

“Forgive us, Lord, when our leaders fail to take action to protect the most vulnerable from the dangers of gun violence,” Hollerith says. “Forgive us, Lord, for the times when we lack the courage and political will to work together. Open our eyes and our hearts to work across our divisions to end the plague of gun violence.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Bishops United Against Gun Violence.

“We must reflect on and acknowledge our own complicity in the unjust systems that facilitate so many deaths, and, in accordance with the keeping of a holy Lent, repent and make reparations,” Bishops United’s statement says before calling for political engagement by Episcopalians.

The bishops specifically call for legislation banning the AR-15 and similar weapons, as well as high-capacity magazines and so-called “bump stocks,” the device used by the shooter who killed 58 people at an outdoor music concert in Las Vegas in October.

“We understand that mass shootings account for a small percentage of the victims of gun violence; that far more people are killed by handguns than by any kind of rifle; that poverty, misogyny and racism contribute mightily to the violence in our society and that soaring rates of suicide remain a great unaddressed social challenge,” Bishops United’s statement says.

“And yet, the problem of gun violence is complex, and we must sometimes address it in small pieces if it is not to overwhelm us. So, please, call your members of Congress and insist that your voice be heard above those of the National Rifle Association’s lobbyists.”

The group of bishops also plans to announce a schedule of services of lamentation, with details to be released on its Facebook page.

And Bishops United invited Episcopalians to join in a period of discernment, including in July at General Convention in Austin, where the bishops will gather for prayer outside the convention hall each morning.

Bishops United Against Gun Violence was formed as a response to an earlier school shooting, the December 2012 slaughter of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Since then, Bishops United has released statements with increased frequency responding to deadly mass shootings, including the Oct. 1 massacre of 58 people in Las Vegas and the Nov. 5 shooting that left 26 dead at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].

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