Religious services reflect on Las Vegas shooting aftermath

Updated October 8, 2017 - 6:01 pm

Weekend worship services around the Las Vegas Valley reflected on the Oct. 1 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival. Religious leaders and congregants prayed for victims, honored first responders and worked to sort out the aftermath of the Strip massacre that left 59 people dead and nearly 500 wounded.

Following is a roundup of services and messages:

Indigo Valley Church

The lights were dimmed, and the altar at Indigo Valley Church was backlit by 58 flickering candles as worshippers entered for Sunday morning’s service. After an opening song, the Rev. Charlotte Morgan, the church’s pastor, and congregant John Lujan took turns reading aloud the names of the 58 people gunned down a week before in the shooting on the Strip.

“We pray for these 58 people who died in our midst, on our watch,” Morgan said, as she welcomed 35 people to worship at the church, which celebrates its third anniversary this month.

During her sermon, “Seeking Peace,” Morgan spoke of the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, working with several other clergy to organize the interfaith prayer vigil — attended by hundreds — that took place one evening after the shooting. She spoke of the immediate needs of the victims, families and loved ones — needs met through the bravery and heroism of people who knew them, and people who didn’t.

Morgan noted that eventually, the injured will leave our hospitals. Then what?

“Where do we go from here,” she asked. “My concern is three to six months from now, a year from now, five years from now. … This has changed all of us. We don’t realize how, or how much, but it has changed us.”

Morgan encouraged worshippers to seek peace through rituals: attending church, lighting candles, appreciating beauty. It will take time, but when we move to peace within ourselves, we are better able to help one another.

“These 58 candles will be blown out, but they’ll become one candle, one light that will be lit each week to remember this day. One light, the light of God. We are all one, one with God. We are one light.”

Ellen Fiore

St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church

Families in their best attire poured into St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church a half hour before Sunday’s 8 a.m. Mass, hoping for a seat. Soon, people began standing next to one another as the crowds flowed outside the church doors, waiting for the Rev. Michael Conway to arrive and lead the service.

Around 7:50 a.m., a band began playing and people sang along to the strums of the guitar and jingles of the tambourine.

After a moment of silence, Conway began his sermon and discussed the shootings.

“We remember those that have been killed a week ago by a man who was crazy,” Conway said in Spanish. “We have to pray for those who have died and for those who are still in the hospital.”

A second collection basket was passed toward the end of Mass to collect money for the natural disaster victims of Puerto Rico and Mexico and the victims of Las Vegas.

Sandy Lopez

First African-Methodist Episcopal Church

The names of the 58 victims were read aloud during the Sunday service at First African-Methodist Episcopal Church in North Las Vegas.

“When life is more than you can bear and you feel like you’re at wit’s end, God can rescue you,” the Rev. Ralph Williamson told his congregation Sunday morning.

Before the service, Williamson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal the previous week had been challenging. He said he initially wanted to disengage from the situation, because of fear, but he knew that was not the right path.

“You can hear that in people when they open up,” he said of the desire to disengage. “It became personal even when they thought it wasn’t personal.”

On Sunday, Williamson called on those to lean into God, to pray to God and to put their strength into God to help those affected by the tragedy heal.

“We cannot minimize the hurt, the pain or the impact this will have on many for years to come,” he said. “There is nothing but time and God that can ultimately heal the brokenness of these victims.”

The church, at 2246 N. Revere St., also held a “healing through celebration” service Sunday afternoon, with all proceeds going to victims and their families. Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., called on attendees to take action on the issue by calling representatives.

“It is time to act against this gun violence in America. It is unacceptable. It is unacceptable,” he said. “This is an American issue we need to resolve today. We need your support.”

Meghin Delaney

The Church LV

In the week following the shooting, the Rev. Benny Perez said members have asked him the same questions.

“Is this the judgment of God? Is God angry? Is God behind this? Those are some of the questions people are asking, because I think it opened people up to spiritual things,” Perez said.

At a Sunday night event geared toward millennials, Perez told a a crowded rented retail space at 918 S. Main St. that God does not exist to inflict pain on humanity. The tragedy happened because “there is evil in the world.”

“Unfortunately, evil people do evil things. One of the things I recognized on that Sunday night, I saw two things: I saw the worst of humanity, as this man was shooting innocent people. But we saw the best of humanity as we saw people going in to go rescue and pull people out.”

Perez encouraged people to seek support from a community, and not to be alone.

Joana Salas, 21, who attended Sunday night, has been attending The Church LV for two years.

‘For the past week it’s been just the feeling of a cloud that’s been over, not even just over our church but our city in general. It’s a little bit freeing just to come into a place of community and worship with other people, and know that God is still good no matter what circumstances might be going on.”

—Nicole Raz

St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

Like Mandalay Bay, the campus of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church sits just off Hacienda Avenue.

“A week ago, a time of joy and celebration turned into an experience of horror, like a war zone,” the Rev. John Hondros told his congregation on Sunday, a week after shots rang out from the gleaming hotel less than 3 miles away.

“This past week, we saw this time of darkness, of tragedy, of horror, of insanity. Of an experience that was really diabolical,” Hondros said. “It’s diabolical and pure evil. There’s no way to explain or even rationalize evil, because there is no logic to evil.”

Among the readings for the 10 a.m. service was Luke 7:11-16, in which Jesus went to the city of Nain to comfort a widow whose only son had just died. Drawing parallels to the shootings, Hondros said, “Even in the face of this, we saw that Christ was present. Christ was present by allowing mercy toward those who were trying to escape. Christ was present in lifting up fallen spirits of first responders. Christ was present in firefighters, and paramedics and EMTs. Christ was present with doctors and nurses. Christ was present when the community came together in prayer.”

“Christ does not work in the abstract; Christ is present in each and every one of us who respond to each other with love and compassion and mercy,” he continued. “We become his instruments of light in this dark world. And indeed, this is what allows us to be, if you will, Vegas strong.”

Christopher Lawrence

St. James the Apostle Roman Catholic Church

Soothing words floated atop a gently prayerful melody. “I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.”

White-robed choir singers brought comfort to congregants Sunday at St. James the Apostle Roman Catholic Church on North Martin Luther King Boulevard, where the Rev. James Michael Jankowski addressed the topic on everyone’s mind. “He obviously didn’t appreciate God’s love,” Jankowski said of the gunman who committed the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Strip.

Sad irony infused Jankowski’s reminder that October is Respect Life Month in Catholic churches nationwide, the observance inaugurated — and blighted — by the mass shooting. Yet Jankowski’s words tried to rise above the sorrow.

“In the midst of tragedy, we see that life matters,” he said, referencing heroic acts by first responders, those in the crowd who protected the wounded and donors who have flocked to give blood.

“We call it Sin City,” Jankowski said, “but last week I heard it called Saints City. Because life matters and love wins.”

And that, as the choir musically reminded congregants, will bring the city solace.

“I’ve got love like an ocean, I’ve got love like an ocean, I’ve got love like an ocean in my soul.”

Steve Bornfeld

Westminster Presbyterian Church

A projector screen at the Westminster Presbyterian Church displayed “Pray for Las Vegas” in honor of the 58 victims of the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest festival.

“(Many of) you want to know why God allowed this to happen,” the Rev. David Rhee said during his 15-minute sermon. “The reason God didn’t stop him is the same reason God didn’t stop Adolf Hitler from killing 6 million Jews, and it’s the same reason God didn’t stop Pol Pot from massacring 2 million of his fellow Cambodians.

“And it’s the same reason that God doesn’t stop any of us when we do something wrong,” he added. “That reason is called free will.”

Kailyn Brown

Discovery Church

At Discovery Church in North Las Vegas, the Rev. Dean Sanner preached after an already long week.

Sanner doubles as a local police chaplain. On the evening of the shooting, Sanner was called to duty and stayed in the hospital all night. He prayed with a young woman who was shot, the daughter of a police officer. He comforted another officer who had been shot in the neck.

Congregants prayed for God’s healing power for the injured and wisdom for their doctors.

Sanner told attendees that authorities wouldn’t be able to explain the shooter’s motives. Until the massacre, Stephen Paddock appeared to be doing good, he said. Paddock paid off a gambling debt, gave his girlfriend $100,000 and sent her on a trip.

“Man is evil at its core, make no mistake about it,” Sanner said. “God’s word tells us that we are born into sin. Oh, can we do good things? We can, just like the shooter did. … Just because somebody does good things doesn’t mean they don’t have a sin nature. … It’s not until we get Christ in our heart that he begins to eradicate that and clean us up.”

Harrison Keely

Reformation Lutheran Church

Congregants lined up after Sunday morning’s 9 a.m. service at Reformation Lutheran Church in Las Vegas to light candles. The candles were placed in a pot near the altar to honor the victims of the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip.

In his sermon, the Rev. Jason Adams said he’s heard the frustration of people who have felt powerless in the face of the violence.

Beyond that, though, he said he saw signs of hope. From police and firefighters who ran into danger. From security guards, city staff and private citizens who rushed to help. From doctors, nurses and hospital staff who worked long shifts. From people who donated blood and money.

“The city is more united than it has been in a long time and mourns as one,” Adams told congregants. “We will survive as one. We are Vegas strong.”

Betsy Helfand

Christ Church Episcopal

The gravity of last week’s events caused the Rev. Barry Vaughn to break a promise he made to Christ Church Episcopal — he talked politics.

“Whether you agree with me or not, I love you,” Vaughn told a room of about 50 worshippers, including former Nevada Gov. and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nevada, who’s attended the church since the 1940s.

Vaughn said the country needs better control of firearms. He fears some people believe gun ownership is a divine right.

Under the watchful gaze of a robed Jesus on the cross and stained-glass eyes of Peter and Thomas, Vaughn said worshippers in the past have overcome others’ biblical arguments for slavery and segregation, and popular opinion in favor of smoking and against seat belts.

The country can overcome lax gun laws, he said.

His words caused one early morning worshipper to tell Vaughn, not in anger, that guns are tools and people choose to kill. At his second and last sermon on Sunday, if worshippers disagreed with Vaughn’s words, their faces didn’t show it.

Congregants went through their rituals. They read together and sang together. Music soared from one of Nevada’s largest organs. God did not make the shooter kill, Vaughn said. God guided the first responders.

Wade Tyler Millward

St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church

At St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church, in Las Vegas, the Rev. Paul Oye asked parishioners at Sunday’s 10 a.m. Mass to pray for those killed and injured in last week’s shooting.

One week ago, a man “rained down bullets on innocent lives,” Oye said, and “whenever an event like this happens, we often ask the reason why. ‘Why?’ is a question we all ask. We want to know the reasons this happened.”

Oye asked that, even as discussions about gun laws, mental health care and other factors arise, Christians reflect upon “the centrality of Jesus Christ in our lives.”

Children in our schools “need to know about God and the love of God and need to know how to pray to God and know how to turn to God” in difficult times, he said.

The answer, Oye said, lies in “making Jesus once again the cornerstone of our culture, to make Jesus once again the cornerstone of our society, to make Jesus once again the cornerstone of our hearts.”

Christians must “proclaim this to the world,” Oye said, and help to ensure that “this type of carnage will not become so rampant and so repeated.”

John Przybys

St. Bridget Roman Catholic Church

It was so quiet inside the downtown Las Vegas Catholic church Sunday evening, one could only hear the Rev. Frank Yncierto’s footsteps as he walked past the altar, pausing briefly to bow. The Filipino priest was wearing a black robe, a color worn only during Mass services for the dead.

A week after 58 people were killed while dancing and singing along to country music star Jason Aldean, St. Bridget’s Filipino congregation was struggling to find a sense of normalcy.

“Kamusta naka, how are you?” parishioners whispered to one another as they filled the church pews. “Okay lang ako,” one man said in response, kneeling down to pray. He’s doing as well as one could in this situation.

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things,” Yncierto said, looking up from the scripture.

Always remember the victims and keep them in your prayers, but, he pleaded with his parishioners: Do not forget how to live and to love one another.

“The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” Yncierto read aloud one more time before closing his book of scriptures.

Rio Lacanlale

Central Church

Central Church’s pastor, the Rev. Jud Wilhite, was struck by one passage in particular from a computer file that slain Las Vegas police officer Charleston Hartfield created about a year ago.

Hartfield opened the document with the words, “If you’re reading this, then I’ve gone home.” He titled the file “Charleston Hartfield Memorial Service.”

“I just want the truth,” Wilhite said, reading the Metropolitan Police Department officer’s words to hundreds in the Henderson congregation Saturday evening. “None of this exaggeration of how great of a guy I was.”

Hartfield’s wife, Veronica, shared that file with Wilhite on Saturday, before an evening service that paid tribute to first responders.

Veronica Hartfield, gripping a bouquet and wiping away tears, joined a group of about 50 first responders onstage during the service. Her 34-year-old husband was one of the 58 people killed in the Strip shooting.

People had packed into the church’s 5 p.m. service, which was devoted to remembering the shooting victims, praying for the injured, honoring first responders and working through grief.

The stage in the church’s auditorium was filled with white crosses for each of the 58 who died. Each cross bore a heart — most red and one blue.

Wilhite said he will talk about “Vegas Strong” and navigate layers of grief for the next several weeks.

“We’ve been through something traumatic over the past week. Whether you were there or not,” he said, “there’s only one way to get through this — together.”

Jamie Munks

Temple Beth Sholom

One religious leader in the Las Vegas Jewish community believes that tighter gun control laws are needed to prevent more mass shootings.

At the Temple Beth Sholom synagogue on Saturday morning, Rabbi Felipe Goodman told his congregation that U.S. lawmakers must put aside politics and impose stricter regulations on guns if they truly value human life.

Goodman said he supported citizens’ rights to own a gun to protect their homes but rebuked regulations that allowed the killer to amass an arsenal of more than 40 guns and 1,600 rounds of ammunition.

The rabbi added that the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, like the Torah, must be viewed in modern context.

“If we took ‘eye for an eye’ and ‘tooth for a tooth’ literally, we all would have one eye and no teeth,” he said.

Michael Scott Davidson

Guardian Angel Cathedral

The ground floor was near capacity at the Guardian Angel Cathedral half an hour before Saturday afternoon’s Mass took place. It was somber inside the Catholic church on the Strip’s north side. Many congregants hung their heads; others knelt and prayed while clutching rosaries.

The tragedy that transpired on the south end of the Strip six days earlier was still fresh on everyone’s minds.

The Rev. Robert Stoeckig asked churchgoers to greet one another by revealing their names and hometowns. His sermon focused on the importance of acknowledgment.

“We sang, we prayed, we cried and we embraced,” Stoeckig said about the vigil the church hosted on Monday. “We put aside our differences to witness the powers that can transcend those differences … the power of love.

“By inviting ourselves to each other, we were witnesses to the truth that violence cannot be the final word.”

Stoeckig shared the story of why a Las Vegas police officer always makes sure to greet the people around him, and why young adults showed up to the vigil with boxes of pizza.

“They said they wanted to help and knew many people were hungry after a long day of praying,” Stoeckig said. “We need to live in a world where no human being goes unnoticed in a community.”

Gilbert Manzano

The Masjid Ibrahim

The mosque, located at 3788 N. Jones Blvd., will host a prayer service at 7 p.m. Monday in remembrance of the shooting victims. People of all faiths and backgrounds are invited to attend.

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