Spaces of Peace and Healing

Will Doreza, MMA ‘18


On Thursday, April 18, 2013, Associate Director of Music and Organist of Trinity Church in Boston Colin Lynch was escorted by two machine-gun-wielding FBI agents into the choir room of his church in Copley Square. The crime scene, encompassing the square and several other blocks of downtown Boston, was described by Lynch as a “landscape of desolation” after the bombings at the Boston Marathon that previous Monday, in which three people were killed and hundreds more injured. Lynch’s task: gathering sheet music for a prayer service to be held that evening at the barricades near the church. Limited by time, he made his choices from the scores that are already sitting out on the piano.

Those responding to acts of violence and tragedy aren’t limited to emergency medical services and law enforcement. The three-day ISM Congregations Project revealed that churches around the nation have felt called to act immediately, effectively, and compassionately when faced with shocking acts of public violence. In these cases, physical sanctuaries and church grounds have no longer belong solely to their congregations but have become places of refuge for a larger community. Or when these sacred spaces have been rendered inaccessible—by barricades, fear, or distance—project participants have worked to create sanctuary among people, wherever they might be.

Trinity is a historic church that anchors the neighborhood surrounding Copley Square; it is located just meters from the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Since the building was inaccessible for days after the bombing, worship services had to happen elsewhere or not at all. First came the short prayer service on Thursday at the barricades, which consisted of a short Litany of Healing and Hope, a few anthems sung by the choir, and one hymn, Amazing Grace. On Sunday morning, Temple Israel, a Reform Synagogue a short distance from Trinity, graciously provided space. Asymmetric, stark, and modern, the sanctuary of the Temple is quite different from Trinity’s ornate Romanesque landmark. A year later on Holy Saturday, Trinity held an interfaith service in Copley Square entitled “Light the Fire of Peace,” partnering with Temple Israel, Back Bay Clergy, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, and Old South Church. Marking the year anniversary of the attack, the service aimed to create a unified sense of peace and renewal among Boston’s various spiritual communities

The Catholic Church of St. Monica in Santa Monica, California, responded to a different act of violence on June 7, 2013:  a lone shooter incident on and near the Santa Monica College campus in which six people were killed. In this case, the sanctuary remained accessible, and the church provided several worship services in response, including funeral masses for some of the victims. St. Monica’s long-term response included the formation of the Santa Monica Tri-Parish Social Justice Committee with the city’s two other Catholic parishes, St. Anne and St. Clement. The initial motivation of the committee was to provide support to the families of the victims (all of whom were Catholic), but it broadened, over time, to reaching others affected by the incident, including first responders, hospital personnel, and members of the college community. On the anniversary of the shooting, the committee organized a Catholic memorial mass for the victims and also implemented an interfaith service which took place after the mass on the church patio—a more open and neutral space more welcoming to those of other traditions or none. This service both remembered those directly affected by the particular incident and provided a healing ritual for other victims of gun violence:  anyone who had been touched by gun violence was invited to come forward to ring a bell and offer a few words of reflection.   In addition to remembrance, the service made a strong statement against the city’s epidemic of gun violence. Conference presenter Christine Gerety, Associate Director of Outreach & Pastoral Care, emphasized the importance of responding to a community’s wounds with both worship rituals and outreach ministries.  In addition to the liturgical responses embodied in a Catholic funeral, the parish also provides counseling on a personal level through a bereavement ministry.

Acts of violence often attack the security of our spiritual homes, a truth acknowledged throughout the conference. Tourists and other guests sometimes call Trinity Church in Boston before funerals and major holidays to ask if security arrangements are in place. Both Trinity and St. Monica have hired security guards.  Similarly but on a different scale, another conference presenter, Rev. Cheryl Cornish, told of how a group of members arose to protect her physically when an angry stranger interrupted one of her sermons at the much smaller First Congregational UCC in Memphis. 

Prominent church musician James Abbington began his presentation, Music of Endurance, Resistance and Hope, by recalling several horrific acts of racial violence committed against Black churches in America, including the shooting and murder of nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Beverly Lapp, Professor of Music at Goshen College, recalled several historical instances of displacement and violence against Mennonites, a denomination with a strong tradition of pacifism, in her presentation entitled Mennonite Singing Practices and Formation in Non-Violence. Both of these presenters provided examples of how music itself has provided spiritual refuge and healing in these communities. 

While many of the presentations focused on responses to tragedy, there was also discussion of how the church can work to prevent violence in communities, including those in which systematic violence poses a constant, daily threat. This was particularly evident in the presentation by Dr. Sarah Farmer of Yale’s Project on Faith and Culture, entitled Ministering with Youth in the Midst of Violence. Farmer emphasized that both violence and liturgy can be transformative in the lives of youth—especially those who live under systems of oppression. Responses need to include what she called “Beyond the Walls” ministry, in which ministers seek out the sanctuaries of youth where their liturgies can be held.

Violence is as complicated as the world in which it exists. It can manifest itself even in our most cherished sacred spaces, perpetuated by histories of wrongdoing and systems of oppression. We are called to lament—and also to acknowledge our complicity and to take action. This conference provided hope that congregations have the knowledge, experience, and wisdom necessary to do so, bringing foretastes of God’s peace into our sanctuaries and beyond.