Four days after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 people were killed, many faith leaders around the state who addressed the event with their congregations or led prayer efforts for those involved also delivered a strong political message.
Calls to action through prayer mingled with Scripture and an awareness of the impact their words would have reverberated throughout services on Friday and Sunday.
The Rev. David Freeman of Little Rock’s First United Methodist Church addressed the shooting in its aftermath during a sermon Sunday about God’s covenant with Noah — the promise to never bring another Earth-destroying flood.
“I have to say, I’m extra thankful for this covenant this week, for we once again experienced these acts of violence, causing our humanity to descend into the depths of our wickedness — events that we used to call unimaginable are now routine, and the wickedness doesn’t stop with the tragedy in Florida itself, although that should be enough,” Freeman said.
The wickedness, he said, comes from the inability to act after a succession of similar shootings.
“Or maybe inability isn’t the word,” Freeman said. “The word may be refusal.
“When you have 18 gun-related events in schools in just this year alone, and almost 300 since [the] Sandy Hook [Elementary School shooting in 2012], and no meaningful action has been taken by our so-called leaders, I call that refusal.”
While Freeman said he believes in prayer during times like these, he suggests that it might have a diminished effect.
“Our thoughts and prayers apart from our actions are starting to sound like white noise in the ears of God,” he said.
At Congregation Bnai Israel in Little Rock, Rabbi Barry Block said the shooting was addressed Friday when Jews throughout the world — and the 330 households that comprise the congregation — recognized Shabbat Zachor, the sabbath of remembrance before Purim, and read verses from Deuteronomy 25:17-19.
“[The Deuteronomy verses] remind us of the evil of Amalek, who attacked the children of Israel from the rear … and we’re taught that Haman, the tormentor of the Jewish people … as well as other tormentors of the Jewish people throughout our history are descendants of Amalek,” Block said.
“I would suggest that America [and] American children are continuing to be attacked from the rear, where we’re weakest,” Block said. “Our weak spot … is that we don’t have adequate gun laws and that we don’t have adequate mental health care. And it’s time for America to act with strength, so that the places that have been weak are no longer weak, and that we strengthen our government.”
Claudia Smith, secretary of Union African Methodist Episcopal Church in Little Rock, said the Rev. Chestine Sims wrapped up the end of a series on forgiveness, anchored in Matthew 6:15, and led a prayer for the victims and their families, while Dr. Mahmoud Al-Denawy, imam of the Islamic Center of Little Rock, said he did not address the shooting during the center’s weekly open house Feb. 16.
Al-Denawy said a friend was considering speaking about it Friday.
Thirland McKissic, pastor of New Fellowship Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, said that while he hadn’t spoken about the shooting yet, he would do so Sunday and that ideas from leadership — whether from the leader of a church or the leader of a nation — have a trickle-down and at times divisive effect that matters.
“You have to be careful what you say to a congregation of people, just like the president,” said McKissic, explaining his approach to addressing his congregation of about 200 members. “You need to be careful what you say to people, because people listen to you.
“If I would go up and start talking crazy stuff they would grab a hold of that, because it’s a lot simpler to do that than to follow God’s way sometimes. … If you get up there and start talking some crazy stuff, there’s some people that will follow you no matter what you say,” he added.
The Rev. Susan Miller of Little Rock’s Pulaski Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) led what she called “not a typical message” Sunday, aiming to keep “an attitude of acceptance and openness where people can honestly have a conversation.”
“I just lifted it up in prayer and asked that God would help our people and our leaders to listen to the cry of our children, to do something to try to make this epidemic better,” Miller said of how she spoke to her flock of around 20 people. “I tried to make a statement that would not be considered Republican or Democrat, but just that there’s got to be something we can do. There’s got to be some kind of a solution that people can agree on that will help.”
The National Day of Prayer Task Force, which is led by the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of Cross Church in Fayetteville, sent out a call to pastors and churches Feb. 16 for Feb. 18 to be a day of nationwide prayer.
“If you call yourself a Christian, this is the day when you have to put your faith into action by praying for those who are hurting,” Floyd said in a release. “These families need our prayers; our communities need our prayers; America needs our prayers.”
Floyd said he responded to the shooting in Parkland as part of a process that includes “trying to be sensitive to what’s happening in the country and in the world.”
While Floyd did not give a sermon focused on the shooting, he had already planned to preach about Ephesians 4:3, which he described as “making every effort to bond the peace.”
The theme for this year’s National Day of Prayer, set for May 3, will be unity, Floyd said.
“America is more divided now than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, and there’s such vitriolic speech and hateful words and the spirits of people have become somewhat hardened to the moment,” he said. “The reason we’re forwarding [the theme of unity] and the reason we’re praying for it is because we don’t have it.
“And obviously you know government can’t fix this and politics can’t heal us. And the only answer ultimately is calling out to God and asking God to bring it, because I believe that unity is supernatural, it only comes through God heading down. And that’s why America needs God today more than ever.”
Floyd said he believed that those who believe in the power of prayer “can do great things among us.”
“I really believe that prayer is not inaction, but prayer is our greatest action,” he said. “And part of prayer according to Scripture is being alert to what’s happening around us, and being alert means giving attention to it.
“And so I think that while prayer becomes our spiritual force, we also have to act upon what God puts in our heart and every one of us should be doing everything we can to try to deal with the cultural issues that are many times not helping us in relationship into various matters trying to move our country forward.”