On the anniversaries of the Oxford and Sandy Hook school shootings, Michigan United Methodist congregations created spaces for prayer and fellowship as a means of caring for their communities.
Three Michigan United Methodist churches recently opened their doors to embrace students and community members on the anniversaries of two tragic school shootings. Nov. 30 marked the anniversary of last year’s high school shooting in Oxford, MI, and Dec. 14 was the tenth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT.
St. Paul’s UMC in Rochester, MI, Oxford UMC, and Leland UMC created spaces for prayer and fellowship as these communities remembered those lives taken by gun violence.
About 125 gathered on Nov. 20 at Rochester: St. Paul’s UMC in a candlelight service of hope and healing. Fourteen students from St. Paul’s youth group, some of whom attend Oxford schools, participated in the service through scripture reading, storytelling, and prayer. The communities around Oxford were devastated on Nov. 30, 2021, when a student opened fire at the high school with a handgun killing four students and injuring six others and one teacher.
Kaitlyn Beckwith, who was an Oxford senior at the time of the shooting, led everyone in prayer and began by reading the names of her classmates who were killed: “Almighty and most merciful God, we come to you with heavy hearts and troubled minds as the one-year anniversary of the Oxford school shooting is upon us. We pray for the victims, Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Justin Shilling, and Hana St. Juliana, and the survivors in Oxford.”
Kaitlyn had returned from Michigan State University to participate in this service and support her church family and school friends during this time of remembrance.
The Oxford school shooting impacted the Rochester: St. Paul’s congregation since several families connected with the Oxford school system are active church members. Last year, St. Paul’s did a simple service right after it happened, so this year the church’s staff wanted to do more, especially considering the growing mental health crisis in this country.
Jodi Stuermer, Director of Youth Ministry at St. Paul’s, took all this to heart when crafting the Nov. 20 service, entitled “Imagine Peace: A Candlelight Gathering of Hope and Healing.” “We decided to have it not only lift up those we lost at Oxford but be a space dealing with any kind of loss,” she said. Ultimately, they wanted the service to focus on peace and healing, with everyone leaving a bit more hopeful than they did when they arrived.
The church was transformed into a sanctuary of healing and light. Staff and volunteers placed 500 luminarias leading up to the church, plus some inside the worship space. There was also a time set aside for lighting candles together as a sign of hope and solidarity in dark times.
During the service, Rev. Dr. April Gutierrez, associate pastor at St. Paul’s, invited everyone to write prayer requests on cards and attach them to birch trees positioned by the stage. It was a way for those attending the service to express their needs to God.
At the end of the service, Stephen Ministers were available to talk to and pray with anyone who needed additional support. Church staff also let everyone know that St. Paul’s would be having a Blue Christmas service later in December, which some churches do at this time of year to help individuals navigate the season, which is often difficult for those who are grieving or alone.
One woman shared with Jodi after the service that she had just lost someone close to her to suicide, and she felt the service was meaningful because there had not been a memorial service yet for the young man who died. As Jodi noted, “We never know where people are at.”
Rochester: St. Paul’s service of hope and healing was a reminder of how the church can reach out and care for others. Jodi said it was an opportunity to let everyone know, especially the students, “God is with us during all this craziness [of gun violence] that keeps happening.”
Oxford Community Schools designated the date of the anniversary, Wednesday, Nov. 30, as Wildcat Remembrance Day and closed all schools. According to the school website, students and staff were encouraged to “spend this day how you and your family need to—to heal, reflect, mourn, and most of all, to love.”
In response, Oxford UMC opened its doors that day for an open house for students and anyone in the community to eat, play games, and spend time together.
Steve Laidlaw, the varsity basketball coach at Oxford High School, is a member of Oxford UMC and co-chair of their congregational revitalization team. Steve said that the church’s hope with this event was to make sure the community knew that the Oxford UMC was there to help the healing process. They also wanted to give students a safe place where they could have activities to enjoy and help each other through a very difficult day.
Initially, the invitation was just sent to all the coaches that Steve knew at the high school as a way to support the athletic teams. But then they opened it up to the rest of the community.
Since the school buildings were closed because of Wildcat Remembrance Day, Steve took his basketball team that morning to the UMW Sports Complex and utilized their facilities for morning practice. Then they met up with the Oxford wrestling team at Oxford UMC and had a nice lunch provided by the church.
At 12:51 pm, the time of the school shooting, the church bell rang, followed by prayer and a moment of silence in remembrance of those lives lost at Oxford High School one year ago.
Steve was grateful for the space his church gave to these Oxford students. “I’m just thankful that the church . . . would open its doors for my basketball program and for the community as a whole. It’s what our church does.”
He also noted the importance of the Oxford UMC playing a more vital role in their community in addressing various social problems and injustices, especially the rise of gun violence in schools. “There are all kinds of things that a church can [do to] step in and fill an incredible void, and all in the name of bringing people to Christ,” Steve concluded. He hopes that Oxford UMC will lead the way and have a major impact on the community.
On December 7, as part of his congregation’s celebration of Advent, Rev. Tim Woycik, pastor of Leland UMC, held a service of prayer and reflection for victims of gun violence.
The service focused on schools, colleges, and universities that have experienced gun violence. The Oxford anniversary was on Nov. 30, and Wednesday, Dec. 14, marked the tenth anniversary of the school shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, which took the lives of 26 people, including 20 children between six and seven years old.
Pastor Tim and his wife, Chris Schwind, have firsthand experience losing a loved one to gun violence. Their daughter, Holly, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2004.
Their story has moved them to do more to help make changes to our gun laws that would better protect our children in schools (read more about their story here). It’s also moved them to join a Michigan Conference coalition working to take action on the gun violence prevention advocacy resolution passed at the 2022 Michigan Annual Conference. This coalition is busy preparing for Advocacy Day—March 22, 2023—in Lansing at Central United Methodist Church and the state capitol, where Michigan United Methodists will be able to schedule time with their elected officials to speak on gun violence prevention matters (learn more about Advocacy Day here).
In his opening remarks during the service of remembrance, Pastor Tim read a litany of the U.S. schools that have experienced gun violence since 2000. He then spoke of traveling with his wife to Connecticut about a month after the Sandy Hook school shooting to be with the people at Newtown UMC.
“What struck us is that the people of Newtown United Methodist Church,” Pastor Tim said, “were a people that were looking to be beacons of light. They did not choose to be victims, but they do choose to remember.” He then remarked that the orange T-shirt he was wearing underneath his jacket was from Sandy Hook Promise, “an organization that finds itself frequently in the halls of Congress, to try to talk about sensible gun legislation.”
During the service, a scripture of lament was read from Habakkuk 1:2-4 and a scripture of hope from Psalm 121. Then, four candles were lit similarly to the candles of Advent.
Pastor Tim said, “During the season of Advent, we think about hope and joy and peace and love. But in a service like this where we pause to remember the occasions of gun violence that have taken place . . . we light candles today.” Prayers were spoken, asking God to comfort those grieving and remove the darkness of loneliness and pain.
The service concluded with the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
For those needing solace during this remembrance, these familiar words became words of hope and light.
Last Updated on December 20, 2022