Churches, synagogues, mosques — beyond being the sacred spaces of the world’s three major religions, they’re also targets. And they’re not alone.
In 2019, it seems that all places could potentially be caught in the literal crosshairs — malls, bars, movie theaters, and most recently, Walmart. Any place, at any time could become a site of mass slaughter for those who would do harm.
For years, the Rev. Wright Culpepper has tried to provide comfort for many of his congregants who are disturbed by the violence — particularly mass shootings — in the world today. But with the increasing regularity, the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Brunswick, finds more and more are simply bewildered.
“In the past, people would try to put a reasonable explanation to these mass shootings: mental illness, an individual’s hatred for a particular group of people, a disgruntled employee, etc. But the seemingly randomness of many of the shootings like El Paso or Las Vegas have us wondering what is going on in our country today,” he said.
“We do wonder if there is any safe place, but as we have absorbed blow after blow, those who come to me want to call ‘time out’ so that we can catch our breath and get a handle on our lives.”
There have been countless prayers for those who have died or suffered, Culpepper leading many of those from his own pulpit. Many parishioners have also sought solace in reconnecting with God in the midst of so much confusion and hatred.
After the recent carnage, two mass shootings back to back in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Culpepper was approached by two individuals who wanted to pray. That lead to his congregation hosting an open gathering, Aug. 14, for all who wanted to come together in the midst of yet another unspeakable tragedy.
Culpepper admits that he hadn’t thought about holding such an event. But he was happy to accommodate the request, drawing dozens together for the cause.
“It was not something that I had thought about. We are all busy with the day to day of our own lives, but their requests reminded me of our need to sometimes hit the pause button,” he said.
Stillness, he said, is critical when facing times of fear and uncertainty. In that quiet, it is easier to let the noise fall away and to hear the voice of the Almighty.
“We need to sit still. We need to bring our petitions to God, but we also need to take the time to listen to God’s response to us.”
That’s what the recent prayer meeting offered and is part of the church’s plan for the future. They hope to continue to open the doors to members and nonmembers from a variety of backgrounds who want to share a moment of quiet and fellowship as they search for meaning and answers.
“First United Methodist Church wants to be more accessible to all who might need to pray, to talk, and to breathe spiritually, so we invited the community to join us,” he said.
“While it was not a large crowd, there were both church members and non members in attendance. It helped those who attended, and we will do it again in a more intentional way. We should not gather just in times of tragedy, but recognize that it is important to re-center ourselves.”
As life moves on, many will fall back into their routine. But, it seems heartbreakingly inevitable, atrocities will return. While Culpepper never wants anyone to become complacent to hate or violence, he hopes to help others find a sense of peace.
That, he adds, comes from leaning on the strength of God and building love between one another.
“We tend to want to take sides, to build fences, to isolate, to protect and to separate ourselves. But we must draw from the love of God to love others, even our enemies. We cannot do this alone,” he said.
Rather, spending time focusing on the positive can help combat despair of dark days.
“The truth is though that love abounds. The shock value of 30 seconds of violence is overwhelming, but every day, countless acts of kindness are being offered in love in the name of God,” Culpepper said.
“We need God to help us disquiet the broken spirits of others who seem to be so angry that they want to control the world so much that innocent people fall victim. May God disquiet the broken spirit within me.”