One of the first lessons I learned when I came to southern Maryland was that everyone’s connected. “It’s likely they’re cousins,” I was told, “and if not cousins, they’re friends.” We’re not a big community. There are only 110,000 residents of St. Mary’s County. We only have one incorporated town, Leonardtown, and each little village is more like a neighborhood in a larger city. St. Mary’s County is one really big small town.
I know I don’t need to rehearse the events of this past Tuesday, the shooting at Great Mills High School. I also know I don’t need to explain why our faith communities gathered Tuesday night in prayer. A post like this really is preaching to the choir, after all.
But that was a question the media asked: What inspired you to gather? Of all the interviews I gave throughout the day and evening Tuesday that question was asked by every single one. Why are you doing this?
Because we needed to be together. Because our response to tragedy is not a ready-made answer, but a commitment to journey into the heart of God, and with one another at our side. Because I needed scripture to be my perspective, and prayer my voice, and God my guide. Because I wanted to keep our daughter home from school all day, and maybe for the rest of her life, if I could.
But my phone was already ringing and the texts were coming fast. A pastor from the Lutheran Church and another from the Methodist Church, each at either end of Great Mills Road, Ascension, Lexington Park’s neighbors. The director of HOPE of Southern Maryland, the justice center at Ascension, and the churches in our HOPE network. My wife, Iman, who sent the clearest text of all: “Prayer service. Tonight. I’ll help.” Our deacon postulant, Mike Cahall, a volunteer EMT with the Lexington Park Rescue Squad, letting me know he was on the scene at 0800. “Meeting at the squad at noon,” he said, heading off to another call. Episcopal colleagues, especially those who came down to be present at Leonardtown High School, where the students from Great Mills were being picked up, enabling the St. Mary’s clergy to attend to our people on the ground. My last call was to Bishop Mariann, apologizing for interrupting her sabbatical. She was present, encouraging, and wise. “We are organized and organizing,” I told her.
Looking at the call record on my phone, that last one was 10:02 a.m. The Community Prayer Service was all but planned, and the leadership of nearly 30 faith communities were not only committed to gather that night but already on the ground – church doors open, hospital chaplains ready, ministers at the local schools, each checking in with each other.
We found a litany written by the Rev’d Laura Everett after 2013’s Boston Marathon Bombing and adapted it for our use. It was exactly what we needed. Somewhere between the need to bring about real change in the public sphere and the kind of crippling hopelessness that wonders ‘Why here?’ is a set of deeper Christian convictions – that gathering in the Name of God is a power unto itself, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not, will not overcome it. The Rev’d Everett said as much as she began: “This is what we do when we don’t know what else to do. We cling to one another, voice our grief, and offer up our prayers to God.” It takes no small amount of courage to face the darkness with light, to “remain steadfast in charity, defiant in hope, and constant in prayer.”