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Kansas City Looks to Faith Leaders as First Responders Offering Comfort After Super Bowl Celebration Shootings

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Above image credit: Among the many places area clergy are called to be first responders is within their own congregations. So when an elderly woman was injured in a fall after a recent worship service, the Rev. Jared Witt of Second Presbyterian Church in Brookside quickly joined other first responders from the Kansas City Fire Department to help. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)
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4 minute read

When catastrophe slams Kansas City, among the first responders — besides firefighters, police, emergency medical personnel and others — are clergy. 

Religious leaders comfort people at crime scenes, accidents, fires and even inside sanctuaries when people have medical emergencies. Then they offer sermons and prayers to help people ponder the ancient question of why, if God is good and powerful, there’s suffering and evil in the world. 

For instance, Fr. Paul Turner, pastor of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City, spoke last month to an Ash Wednesday service just hours after the shootings at Union Station as the Chiefs Super Bowl celebration ended. 

“The coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day,” he began, “was destined to cause problems. . . It seems unfair. 

“This is supposed to be a day of repentance, not a day of cruelty. This got more complicated when Kansas City set aside the same day to celebrate back-to-back Super Bowl victories. It would have made more sense to us if the people in charge had scheduled the parade a day earlier on Mardi Gras. Instead, we got a taste of Easter joy on Ash Wednesday (but) joy has been marred by a horrific shooting in a crowd of people celebrating a magnificent human achievement. It only shows how much we humans, even at our best, still fail before the eyes of God.” 

The next evening, about 75 people gathered for a prayer vigil at Skywalk Memorial Plaza, near Children’s Mercy Hospital, where nine children were still being treated for gunshot wounds. That plaza, of course, commemorates yet another local calamity — the 1981 collapse of the then-Hyatt Regency Hotel skywalks, a crushing engineering failure that killed 114 people and injured 200-plus others. 

The Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III spoke at the Skywalk Memorial Plaza, voicing in a prayer what many were thinking: “We are angry. We are upset. We’re hurt. But we know, Lord, in the midst of all of this you are right here with us.” 

The first of several vigils following the Super Bowl parade mass shooting was held the following day, Feb. 15.
The first of several vigils following the Super Bowl parade mass shooting was held the following day, Feb. 15. People gathered near where some of the young people who were shot were still being treated, at Children’s Mercy Kansas City. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

A few days later, Rabbi Mark Levin, founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah, wrote this in a letter printed in The Kansas City Star: “Every religious organization in greater Kansas City should hold mourning worship and services of introspection for our willingness to conveniently accept violence and death amid civic pride at our athletic team’s accomplishments. We have accepted guns and murder as part of our way of life. Is not the injury or death of the few more important than triumph in sport?” 

In that same Sunday edition of the newspaper, the Rev. Darron Lamonte Edwards, pastor of United Believers Community Church in southeast Kansas City, wrote a guest column in which he called for “an all-hands-on-deck approach. There is both/and. Yes to better gun laws, and yes to more mental health services. And yes to a painful process of national introspection on the decline in our personal mores and on the social media obsession that leaves so many isolated. And, yes to anti-bullying efforts. We owe it to our children to ‘do something.’ But, in our simplistic world, to ‘do something’ has come to mean ‘to find the only solution.’ Which has also come to mean: to reject an opponent’s solution. Which means: We do nothing.” 

Many clergy members quickly addressed the violence in sermons and other ways. For example, the Rev. Holly McKissick, pastor of Peace Christian Church in downtown Kansas City, just blocks from the violence, described how such shootings injure our body politic. In this video, watch minutes 2:22 to 6:55 and 12:20 to 13:40. 

And Victor Daugherty, who leads the Temple Buddhist Center, which meets at Unity on the Plaza, quickly wrote a note to those who attend services at the center, saying, in part: Our community does not need more knowledge right now, it does not need more anger, it needs our love; only when we stop the war inside can we begin to stop the wars outside. Once we have purified and released our own delusion (such as the delusion that we must be angry to affect positive change in the world), we can take action, not from a place of fear, but from the only place that can actually help, love.” 

And in a sermon called “The Road You Didn’t Choose,” Jerod Witt, transitional pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, said this: “Sometimes we find ourselves on roads less traveled not by choice but by circumstances we didn’t choose and never would have chosen. . . Consider, for example. . .the joy of a Super Bowl win, followed by a celebratory parade. . . And then, of course, the shootings. In the wake of that terrible tragedy, the family and friends of Lisa-Lopez Galvan are forced to deal with the loss of someone they love. . . Life is as much about what happens to us as it is what we choose or decide.” 

The history of religious leaders using their prophetic voices (and their presence) is long. When the Bible reports that Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, but Pharoah’s pursuing troops nearly caught them, Moses said this: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” 

And when Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning and found his body missing, the risen Christ confronted her simply by saying her name: “Mary.” In response, she overcame her confusion, returned to Jesus’ disciples and said, “I’ve seen the Lord.” 

Some clergy members are better at this task than others. Occasionally that’s because they ignore the personal approach to being a first responder as described by Rabbi Michael Zedek, rabbi in residence at St. Paul School of Theology: “When, as so often, training isn’t sufficient or comfortable, I default to a ‘ministry of presence.’ A hug, an embrace, a hot meal may be more valued, heard and healing than any verbal assertions. The other challenge is to listen far more than deliver our all-too-neat formulae.” 

But sometimes clergy simply fail. Two days after the Hyatt skywalks collapsed, my senior pastor had nothing to say about it either in his sermon or in a prayer. His silence was painful. 

So, some of us confronted him about that failure, which he acknowledged. The next Sunday he came back, courageously, with a terrific sermon focusing on one of the victims who survived, though with debilitating injuries — someone several of us knew. He asked whether Sally Firestone was injured because God didn’t love or care about her. It was pointed, theologically challenging and helpful. But it was a week late — and many of us haven’t forgotten either the silence or the eventual response. (Sally died a few weeks ago, at age 76.) 

Such clergy failures are rare. Pastors mostly understand that they are first responders, and they fill that demanding role admirably. I just wish more people would notice. 

Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website, book reviews for The National Catholic Reporter and for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com. 

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