Response to Sutherland Springs
By Rev. Catie Scudera, Published on November 6, 2017
On an unusual warm Sunday in October, we conducted our third annual evacuation drill under the direction of our Safe Congregations Task Force, which has been working for two years on a set of updated policies and procedures to ensure a safer environment for all those in our congregation. Though the policies address a wide range of topics, the most visible aspect of this Task Force’s work for many in the church is our staged evacuation drills. You may recall that at last month’s evacuation drill, I ended my verbal instructions from the pulpit about how to exit and where to convene with a special note: “If there is a dangerous person on the grounds of the church, you will not exit out of specific doors nor convene on the front lawn — get out if you are able, and run to the police station on School Street.” I am truly loathe to say these words at each of our evacuation drills, but sadly, in our society today, it is a necessity for congregations to have an “active shooter plan.” Because of the awful prevalence of mass shootings in the United States, many of our local schools use the “ALICE protocol” to train staff and students to respond to active shooters, too.
As I left our Introduction to First Parish class yesterday afternoon, I was reminded why this is so. I was horrified to read the news of the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. My heart broke learning that multiple generations of families were killed, including very young children. I was also gravely concerned to learn the gunman had a convicted history of domestic violence, but seemingly did not receive any treatment to curb his violent impulses and was still able to purchase deadly weapons.
An act of violence against a faith community affects me deeply not only as a minister of a beloved congregation, but as a Unitarian Universalist minister in particular. I still remember the terrible news of the shooting at the Tennessee Valley UU Church in 2008, which left two church members dead and many others wounded. Just as after the horrific mass shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston in 2015, I have found myself struggling not to imagine — and fear — such a violent attack in our own MetroWest community, at our own local First Baptist Church or even at First Parish itself. I know much of my time in spiritual practice and with my personal therapist this week will be reestablishing a sense of safety and courage in myself, so such trepidation does not guide my actions or preoccupy my thoughts.
Perhaps some of you struggle with such anxiety after mass shootings, too. Please reach out to me or members of our Pastoral Care team if you are experiencing strong reactions to this tragedy and need spiritual support. For our families, please know that Mark LaPointe and Alexis Capen are available to offer support in talking with children and teens about tragic events, and there are resources available on the UUA website. The Needham Clergy Association hopes to convene an interfaith vigil of remembrance and action sometime this week, and I will advocate for further interfaith initiatives to promote community action for sensible gun reform (such as partnering with the local Stop Handgun Violence organization) and for peace- and healthy-relationship-building programs (such as expanding Needham area engagement with Our Whole Lives curricula and Louis D. Brown Peace Institute events). I hope by our Bell Notes on Thursday, I will have more information for you about an upcoming vigil service.
Of course, I will pray for all those killed, injured, and traumatized in their house of worship; for all those in mourning in the broader San Antonio region; and, for the loved ones of the gunman who suffer from this terrible attack, too. But, spiritual practices of compassion and remembrance are only a beginning to our faithful response. Atlanta-based Episcopal Bishop, the Right Reverend Robert C. Wright, wrote on Facebook, “Let’s not pray. As someone who convenes and commands prayer for a living, what America needs now is less prayer and more action from her elected officials. When the doers of evil are foreign-born, suggestions for policy and action flow forward. When the doers of evil are Americans with automatic and semi-automatic weapons, we are invited to moments of silence and prayer. Silence is what we use to hear God speak, not a place to hide from our responsibility. Prayer is not a refuge for cowards. Prayer is where we steel ourselves to partner with God for good. Please do not invite me to prayer in response to the horror of Sutherland Springs, Texas, unless it is to pray for courage over elected officials who intend to work for the ban of automatic and semi-automatic weapons.” May we take Rev. Wright’s words to heart, and together find the courage, creativity, and sustained commitment to stop gun violence in our nation.