by Julie Morris
A Service of Communion and Community in the Wake of Violence in Isla Vista, California
Seven young adults violently lost their lives in the college town of Isla Vista, California, on May 23, 2014. George Chen (19), Katherine Breann Cooper (22), Cheng Yuan “James” Hong (20), Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez (20), Weihan “David” Wang (20), and Veronika Elizabeth Weiss (19) were killed by Elliott Rodger (22), who then took his own life.
The Rev. Nicole Janelle, Vicar of St. Michael’s University Church and Episcopal Chaplain at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), responded to the tragedy with a healing ministry of presence that is only possible when a priest and a church have a long relationship of trust and commitment to a particular neighborhood. She opened the church for prayer and support, she collaborated in planning and holding vigils for the whole community, she gave the final benediction at the memorial service for the dead students attended by more than 15,000 people at UCSB’s Harder Stadium, and she had countless conversations helping those she serves to process shock, grief, fear, confusion, pain and anger.
The Isla Vista tragedy happened just two and a half weeks before final exams began at UCSB . Despite the sensitivity of university faculty and their willingness to accommodate students who were too traumatized to study at their normal pace, our culture’s unspoken insistence that grief should be dealt with quickly and privately undoubtedly influenced the way students and others responded to themselves and one another in the weeks and months after May 23. As students left town for the summer break, the informal memorials of flowers and candles marking the places where victims died began to fade. When I came to Isla Vista in September 2014 to serve St. Michael’s during Nicole Janelle’s parental leave, all external appearances seemed to say nothing had happened, or that the killing spree was a very distant memory. My conversations with students, though, revealed a different story. It felt “odd” to come back to Isla Vista, some said. Others shared, “I feel different walking through town.” “I always felt safe. Now I don’t.” “My parents worry more about me.”
The silence about the tragedy and the absence of a permanent memorial led to a false sense that people were “over it” and had moved on. Those who did find themselves still feeling sad and scared wondered if they were the only ones who were still impacted by the violence. It became clear to us at St. Michael’s that, nearly six months after the killings, there was a need to remember publicly the events of May 23, 2014. The biblical tradition of lament seemed the most appropriate way to honor the emotions and experience of the community in the aftermath of violence and loss.
Inspired by “Together in Sorrow, Together in Action”, the Newton Action Alliance’s national vigil for gun violence victims planned for December 11, 2014, at the National Cathedral, we named our service “Together in Sorrow.” It was a service of Holy Eucharist held the evening of November 9, 2014. The lessons chosen for the service were Job 2:11-13 (Job’s friends sit on the ground and weep with him for seven days and seven nights); Acts 20:36-38 (Paul bids farewell to leaders of the church in Ephesus and they weep because they will not see him again); and John 11:32-36 (Jesus weeps at the news of Lazarus’ death). We used Psalm 13 with a musical refrain, “How long will you forget me, O God, my God? How long before I see your face?”
For the Prayers of the People, we designed a ritual called “Prayers around the Broken Heart.” On the floor in front of the altar was a large wooden heart stained on 4×4 plywood and cut into many pieces. Students and other members of St. Mike’s wrote the intercessions. Each intercession named the victims of the tragedy and other causes of our pain and grief that included the events of May 23 but also extended to other heartbreaking situations. The sung response to each intercession was the Taizé song, “O Lord, hear our prayer, O Lord, hear our prayer: when we call, answer us. O Lord, hear our prayer, O Lord, hear our prayer. Come and listen to us.” As we named the victims of the violence in the intercessions and the other causes of our pain and grief (such as the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the deaths of loved ones, broken relationships and environmental degradation), people were invited to take out a piece of the heart and hold it. By the end of the prayers, many pieces of the heart had been removed and we just stood together around the broken heart. People returned to their seats with their piece or pieces of the heart and later placed those pieces on the altar at the offertory. The heart was not put back together.
One question I receive about this service is how we dealt with naming (or not naming) the perpetrator of the crime. This is a sensitive question for many communities that are grieving deaths due to violence. When planning the service, we discussed this question at a meeting of the St. Michael’s Bishop’s Advisory Committee. We quickly concluded that, as Christians, we must name and pray for the perpetrator. We chose to highlight his responsibility for the murders and the grief of his family in the intercession that came third (after the intercession for those who were killed and the intercession for those who were injured): “We remember as well Elliot Rodger, the person responsible for the violence that took the lives of six of our community members, injured many others, and scarred all of our hearts. It seems life was agonizing for him, and we know his family also suffers immense grief. We hold them up, Lord, to your healing light.”
St. Michael’s “Together in Sorrow” service became the first of a series of services of lament held in the Diocese of Los Angeles as a response to gun violence. The Program Group on Peace and Justice in the Diocese of Los Angeles, of which I am a member, recognized that as a Church we have a special ability and a special responsibility to make space for our communities to feel the tremendous loss and grief resulting from gun and other forms of violence. Any genuine will to change and energy for enduring action is more likely to come out of the depths of our pain and our willingness to be present to the grief of parents who have lost their children and communities that are forever changed than it is to come out of committee meetings. We decided our first step towards a diocesan-wide response to gun violence would be services of lament in each deanery in the Diocese of Los Angeles and from there we would go on to discern how the Holy Spirit is calling us to further action.
A tool kit and resource page for responding to gun violence can be found at www.ministries.ladiocese.org/peace_and_justice.html.
The Rev. Julie Morris is a Priest in the Diocese of Los Angeles. She is a co-founder of the Abundant Table, a young adult ministry committed to food system transformation. In addition to serving in parishes as needed, she leads retreats, Bible studies and workshops to nourish the spiritual lives of individuals and communities with compassion and joy.