Parishes pray for those impacted by gun violence
Awareness. Transformation. Action.
Thus was the challenge of prayer vigils that four parishes in the Eastern Vicariate held for victims of gun violence in recognition of the annual World Day of Peace observance on Sunday, Jan. 1. Over the New Year’s weekend, Immaculate Conception, Hampton; St. Therese, Chesapeake; and Church of the Holy Family and Church of the Holy Apostles, both
in Virginia Beach, prayed during the vigils for those who died from gun violence in 2022, whether by suicide, accident or murder, including mass shootings. The parishes emphasized Hampton Roads’ tragedies.
“Doing it in solidarity with churches across the region makes it feel like we have that much more power for making change,” said Teresa Stanley, a Holy Apostles parishioner who helped organize the event.
‘Not just a number’
Immaculate Conception displayed 217 pairs of shoes for each victim killed by gun violence in Hampton Roads last year. Each pair had a tag with that person’s name, and as the parishioners processed out at the end, they placed candles by the shoes and gathered for a brief prayer.
There were children’s and adults’ shoes, sneakers and high heels, sandals and boots, depending on the individuals who died, who ranged in age from two to 83. The vast majority were young men in their 20s and 30s who were killed in individual shootings, according to research done by parishioner Joan Kennedy.
“That (the shoes) really made an impact in terms of making it not just a number, (but) really connect- ing what’s happening to humans, children of God. These were people who wore shoes, who had names,” Kennedy said. “Some of them were juniors or the third. Somebody had taken a great deal of care to pick a name with all the hopes and dreams that they had for their child, and then they were taken by gun violence.”
Holy Family set out 22 pairs of shoes, and two people alternated reading the names — 10 names per pair — of the people who died of gun violence in Hampton Roads. A chime was rung after each one and a parishioner placed a candle behind the shoes.
“The whole idea was that these people were sons, daughters of somebody, and they’re not just a statistic which was why the names were read,” said Abby Causey, the parish’s director of evangelization and community technology. “Imagine if your loved one was suddenly taken. That’s what we wanted to highlight.”
At Holy Apostles, the vigil began in the commons and moved to the parish garden where lights were placed in memoriam of the lives lost. Parishioners also told personal stories as to how gun violence has affected them. A student spoke of the mental health toll lockdown drills at school are having on her and her friends.
Prayers for transformation
In his homily at the New Year’s Eve liturgy, Father Kevin O’ Brien, St. Therese pastor, led into the vigil that would follow the Mass by focusing on Pope Francis’ message of peace this year. Father O’Brien emphasized at the liturgy and the vigil that “in the midst of dark out there, we need to not lose our faith, not get discouraged, but trust in this God who walks with us” and that we need to be “sentinels bringing light.”
The vigil not only honored those killed by gun violence. A script read at all four vigils also prayed for the wounded, for affected family members and friends and for the shooter. It asked God “to strengthen the hands of the rescue workers, medical professionals and caregivers.”
The scripted prayer expressed frustration that gun violence is escalating. One reader spoke of being “tired of the unwillingness to see this as an important issue,” “tired of those in power who work to prevent real change,” and “tired of those who say that gun violence can’t be reduced.”
Another reader conveyed fury as he read, “I’m angry at the seeming powerlessness of our community to prevent this. I’m angry at the selfish financial interests who block change. I’m angry that these shootings happen at all.”
The prayer asked for transformation, as a reader proclaimed, “Help me to see in these emotions our own desire for change. Help me see in these feelings your moving me to act. Help me see in these reactions your pushing me to do something.”
And it further called for those attending to respond: “How can I help? How can I fight against gun violence? How can I urge my political leaders to enact change? How can I help people understand that this is an issue about life?”
Centered in prayer
At Holy Apostles, parishioners were given specific suggestions as to how they can help in the effort, such as working for the passage of “common sense gun legislation,” learning more about what is going on in the community and donating blood “to help those impacted by the disaster,” Stanley said.
The vigils were the result of an initiative by Virginia Catholics for Racial Justice which has been encouraging and supporting Catholic parishes to host vigils regarding gun violence, said Mark Hoggard, Immaculate Conception pastoral associate.
Organizers said vigils like these keep the issue of gun violence in the forefront, and Immaculate Conception and Holy Apostles plan to have one every year. The other parishes are considering doing so.
“Our goal was really to increase awareness about gun violence in our community, to help people to understand the magnitude of the issue and of course to pray for the victims of gun violence, and our ultimate goal is to have zero shoes,” Hoggard said.
Likewise, Father O’Brien said, “We need to pray to God for an end to this violence, and we need to take action because it’s getting out of hand.”
Jimmy Culpepper, a St. Therese parishioner who helped organize the vigil, agreed.
“Obviously what we’re after is change. You shouldn’t have to worry about getting shot going to the grocery store, going to school or going to the hospital or all the other places where these mass shootings occur,” he said. “We need to do better individually. We need to do better in our communities. Part of that doing better is pushing for change, whether that’s legislative change, whether that’s change in budget.”
Causey said the response to gun violence, which is “weighing so much on our society,” must start with prayer because “prayer centers us,” but prayer “should move us to action.”
“We as a people of faith know what we are called to do. And we had our example by Jesus on the cross, that we know that the ultimate price to do anything right, to do anything what God wants, will ultimately require some sacrifice,” she said.