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One of the most gut-wrenching realities about mass shootings is that they’re always unexpected, and a community never knows it’s the next spot a shooter will strike.
Even when shooters show alarming warning signs—as did the killer in the Florida massacre this week—parents and students and principals and pastors and neighbors are still stunned when a person who seems “off” suddenly unleashes a bloodbath.
Legislators will debate gun laws, experts will have important discussions about mental health, and schools will ponder tighter security measures, but another mass shooting leaves an immediate question on the table: How should local communities and local citizens prepare?
It’s a grim reality worth considering: Whatever city you’re in, whatever school or church you attend, whatever sporting event you watch, or movie you run out to catch—you could be next.
It’s statistically unlikely, but it’s true. And even if a horrendous public calamity doesn’t befall your community, any person at some point may come in contact with a small or large disaster.
After years of covering both natural and man-made disasters in the United States and abroad, at least two things come to my mind for citizens and churches to consider:
1) Prepare personally by loving your neighbor ahead of time.
This may seem like a drop-in-the-bucket suggestion, but do you know how to administer basic first aid? I was amazed when covering the Boston Marathon bombing at the ordinary citizens who sprang into action by ripping up clothing and placing handmade tourniquets in just the right spot to save victims from bleeding out.
It made me think: Would I know how to do that?
Perhaps the more likely scenario for most people is coming across a person who needs CPR in an emergency. Stop and think: Would you know how to give it?
The American Red Cross offers local CPR and emergency prep classes, along with apps that can help prepare an individual for responding to a disaster.
As Christians, let’s be on the front lines of loving our neighbors as ourselves by being prepared ahead of time to help in a worst-case scenario.
2) Prepare as churches by loving your city ahead of time.
While outpourings of national grief and prayer services for those suffering in Florida are right and good, local responses to local disasters will always be most effective. The churches in town have the most obvious opportunity to provide comfort and aid to those in need.
After the Las Vegas concert shooting in October, one pastor spoke about how first responders had been dropping by his church for prayer and encouragement all day.
Why did they pick his church?
Because the congregation had been reaching out to first responders long before the shooting, with simple forms of ministry and encouragement. When a disaster struck, these firefighters and policemen rushed to the crime scene to help, and they knew where to retreat for spiritual care afterward: to a local church they already knew.
More than a decade ago, I arrived at Virginia Tech the morning after a gunman killed 32 people in a shooting spree on the college campus. It was a scene of widespread shock, anguish, and fear, with scores of young college students who had no idea how to cope with something of that magnitude.
The next day, I sat on a bench and watched as students cried, stared straight ahead, or read profiles of the dead in the school newspaper. Within moments, a man approached and thrust a piece of paper toward me. In a fast clip, he said, “I just want you to know God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
I looked at him for a moment, and he just as quickly moved on. He wore a shirt that indicated he was from an out-of-town church, and had arrived here to evangelize shellshocked students.
I watched him hand out tracts to numb college kids without ever engaging one in a conversation. I’m sure some students must have wondered: Who are you and how is this wonderful?
It was a stark contrast to a prayer service I attended the night before. At the local chapter of Reformed University Fellowship, the campus minister allowed for raw grief. He read from Psalm 88: “I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave. …”
In the decade since, I’ve never read that Psalm without thinking about that night. That’s how powerful it was to witness epic grief over extreme evil, and hear a local Christian minister remind the weeping students: “We live in a broken world. We groan in a broken world. We hope in a broken world.”
Hope wasn’t missing, but it didn’t gloss over the real pain in the room and on campus, even as students finished the night by singing Psalm 73: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
As local Christians who live in local communities, may we be finding ways to love our neighbors as ourselves for the present need, and for whatever might lie in the future.