The notifications came like a tsunami to my cell phone:
“Active shooter situation in San Bernardino”
“Unknown number wounded and killed.”
My first reaction: “Not again. I’m weary of this, I’m discouraged. How long will it be until this happens in my neighborhood . . . again?”
Perhaps you experienced those feelings too. I had to stop and wonder why I think so many other countries are dangerous to visit when my own is impacted weekly by active shooters in schools, churches, universities, malls and community centers. Sadly, it has become a new normal.
This weekend, in the context of the church, I will be debriefing with our gathered youth the events of the last week. In former days this would have happened rarely and only following an event I subjectively measured as “big.” Or, it might have happened if one of our youth brought it up as a prayer request or if the national news was covering it for consecutive days. It might have been perceived as an “option” but not likely a necessity.
I propose we are in a season where debriefing is now a necessity. With the frequency of terrorist acts and mass shootings now a regular occurrence – more than five have happened in the last two weeks alone – and how social media creates incessant communication, it is important for us as youth leaders to recognize that the trauma of these many episodes no longer lies below the surface for our youth and children. The smiles on the faces of our youth may be hiding anxiety they are feeling. And it is important for us, as leaders, to be honest with our youth in age appropriate ways when we are the ones feeling anxious.
Join me this Sunday or the next time you meet with your youth to reflect and talk as a “family.”
Here is a simple game plan you could adapt in your debrief time to fit your own context:
Make this plan your own. What other ideas would you add? What's worked well for your groups in the past?
Doug Ranck is associate pastor of youth and worship at Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara, CA. With three decades of youth ministry experience, he serves as ICTG Program Director for Youth Ministry, as well as a leading consultant, trainer and speaker with Ministry Architects, the Southern California Conference, and, nationally, with the Free Methodist Church. He has written numerous articles for youth ministry magazines and websites, and published the Creative Bible Lessons Series: Job (Zondervan, 2008). Doug is happily married to Nancy, proud father of Kelly, Landon and Elise, and never gets tired of looking at the Pacific ocean every day.
I did not want to write this.
I did not want to have to write one more response, reflection, or blog post about the process of a campus healing after a shooting, not one more word. But here I am three weeks after the Umpqua Community College shooting in my beloved state of Oregon, still trying to comprehend the tragedy, loss, and deep grief that yet another campus shooting has left behind. Yuck.
In blog posts past I have offered many thoughtful and thought out tips and suggestions for those supporting college students in the wake of a campus shooting. Some of these suggestions have included holding a time for prayer and reflection, creating space for grief and processing, and acknowledging the need for lament in it’s many forms. These are good suggestions and I certainly would like to highlight them again as great tips in helping campus communities work through their loss… however right now I want to suggest something different – action.
After Sandy Hook it was a no-brainer – something needed to be done. As has happened many times throughout our recent history, celebrities came together to make a statement – in a simple black and white video – to say three words:
Enough is enough.
The message was simple – enough is enough. We need to change what has been broken, do something – anything. No more names, no more lists of names, no more schools. No more.
With that cue, I suggest here additional ways we can support our campus communities in light of local or national massive campus tragedy and loss.
Call the Question
When a massive tragedy like a campus shooting happens many questions come to the surface. Some of these questions are rhetorical, others honestly seek understanding and answers. Be intentional and create space for the questions – both big and little, both personal and communal, both isolated and mobile. Many of us process our experience in words. Creating space for key questions not only offers students the chance to reflect, but starts to get at important concerns.
This process of calling the questions can be done as an event, small group activity, restorative justice peace circle, or over a meal. Have a moderator or host begin and then let the questions come.
Where was God in this moment?
What is the role of grace and forgiveness in this moment?
Where is God’s goodness/ fairness/justice in this moment?
If God is good then why….?
Why did this happen?
Then, host a discussion around them. Where do the questions come from? What are their roots? How might we go about answering them in community?
Remind the group gathered that the questions don’t need to be answered today. They do need to be asked and to be heard. Asking questions has theological implications and challenges students to see what is symbolic in the experience, deepening their engagement with pressing issues.
Get angry about this. It’s ok to get angry, and it’s ok for students to work through their anger as well. When anger surfaces after massive trauma, we as leaders can model our freedom to let it come and reflect on the why and how it is. Walking students and communities through this emotion is crucial. As mentioned above, key questions are tangible means of engagement and can assist students into deeper reflection in relation to the anger they feel in the aftermath of mass violence.
Invite students to consider:
What exactly are you angry about?
Where do you think it is coming from?
What will you do with this emotion?
Identifying answers to these questions can help students begin to feel more focused and grounded, and less chaotic following the disparate experience of initial shock.
After Sandy Hook I was angry. We had just had our first child and during those early weeks of his life I rocked him in his nursery as my husband watched the news in the room down the hall. I could hear the names being read of the children that died in that campus shooting -children. I was angry because of the injustice and the pain. I was angry because I was so happy about being a new mother with a beautiful child and I could not bear to think of the pain of losing my own child if that had happened to our family. I grieved deeply for the mothers who lost their babies.
It was infuriating.
Reflecting on this emotion taught me so much about myself, what I cared about, and how much certain issues meant to me. By reflecting on my anger, I was thrown into the depths of prayer and lament to God. There my understanding of God and God’s love, compassion, and grace grew. It was an incredible learning and stretching experience for me. I know it is an experience our students can learn from as well.
Finally, the best thing about anger is that it can get us going and motivate us to action. Perhaps your action may be entering into a deeper experience of prayer or outpouring to God. Perhaps your action may involve deeper engagement with community instead of becoming isolated. There is solidarity in this form of lament. Or, perhaps, your further action moves you toward acts of justice, awareness, healthy living, and correcting.
When guided in positive ways, anger has great potential to lead us to big action which can bring about important change.
Do Something – Anything
Finally, nothing will change if we don’t do something. Caring about issues like campus violence – whether the issues are racial or gender specific micro-aggressions, campus shootings, dating violence, or sexual assault – is only half the battle. We must accompany our care and concern with action. We must let our good intentions manifest into change. Or else, truly nothing will happen.
On a pragmatic scale this might look like starting a letter writing campaign with students. It might mean attending or organizing a community conversation on these issues. It may mean participating in a protest, sit in, or march. Or, like the Enough is Enough video – it may involve using the arts to communicate the importance of an issue or topic.
Gather for memorials and prayer services. Gather for call to action events and get your local communities involved so those around you and your community understand that you are not willing to take it anymore.
As we say in the national sexual assault bystander program Green Dot –
We don’t need to do everything, but we can do something.
My hope after Sandy Hook was that this anger, this nationwide anger, would lead to change – after all, what was it going to take if not this horrific tragedy?
But here we are three weeks later from another campus shooting. And, sadly, more incidents have occurred since then.
We are not alone, we are together. We are community and we can make a difference. Change can happen.
Enough is enough.
Director of Social Concerns Seminars in the Center for Social Concerns (University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana), Melissa is a social entrepreneur, a feminist liberation theologian, and a trained community organizer. She works with university students in academic and experiential environments to respond actively to most pressing social concerns of our time. She lives with her family in South Bend, Indiana.
From 2012-2020, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for leadership and congregational care.