‘Weeping where there was once dancing’: UCC churches lament California shootings

When Montebello Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC gathered for worship on Sunday, attendees had just received news of the tragic shooting in Monterey Park. Eleven Asian Americans had been killed and nine others injured during a Lunar New Year celebration at a local dance studio on Saturday, Jan. 21. The church, located in the neighboring city of Montebello, made space to grieve and pray for the violence and harm in their surrounding community.

‘Where there was once dancing’

The pastor, the Rev. Mitchell Young, said that a praise song which had already been planned for the Jan. 22 service – “You Are My Hiding Place” – “really hit hard” for the needs of the morning.

The Rev. Mitchell Young prays during the Jan. 22 service at Montebello Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC.

The song inspired him to offer this prayer: “O Gracious God, our hearts are heavy this morning with grief. Even though we may have come into this morning with worshipful hearts, we know that you are our hiding place, that you will fill our hearts with songs of deliverance whenever we are afraid. Help us to trust in you.

“Our hearts go out now to the people of Monterey Park and our sister cities in the neighboring areas. Let them know that they can trust in you, and even for those who do not trust in you, we know that you do care for them, for everyone. Continue to be close to the hearts of all who grieve. We pray in Jesus’ name.”

Many of the MPCC congregants live in Monterey Park and Montebello, Mitchell said. The church building is located adjacent to the City of Monterey Park, which cancelled Sunday’s events of its Lunar New Year Festival following news of the shooting. Many church members are active participants in the city’s Langley Senior Center, which became a crisis response center to offer support for family and friends of those harmed.

Mitchell received an outpouring of messages offering care and concern from other UCC pastors and leaders. At a Bible study, a church member brought a heart-shaped frame where congregants could tie red ribbons and offer prayers for Monterey Park.

Congregants tied red ribbon to a wire heart and offered prayer for Monterey Park at Montebello Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC.

In what Mitchell called “godly timing,” the Bible study had been in the middle of studying the book of Lamentations.

“While my mind was on Lamentations and Monterey Park, I imagined that Monterey Park catches a glimpse of Jeremiah’s grief for Jerusalem after the Babylonian devastation,” Mitchell said. “Monterey Park should have been filled with traditional lion and dragon dancing to welcome the Lunar New Year. Star Ballroom Dance studio (where the shooting took place) should have been filled with happy couples dancing together.” 

Mitchell expressed lament by rewriting the opening verses to Lamentations to read, “How lonely sits Monterey Park whose streets were filled with people welcoming the Year of the Rabbit! Overnight she has become a grieving widow, weeping where once there was dancing.” 

Offering a ‘well of light’

There was another deadly shooting just two days later in Half Moon Bay, where seven people were killed and one critically injured in two locations in the coastal city south of San Francisco.

Following the news of these back-to-back mass murders, the Rev. Kathryn Schreiber held a “Care and Share” virtual gathering so the congregation of Berkeley Chinese Community Church in Berkeley, Calif., could check in and support each other. “It was a ‘well of light’ – a safe place to be honest about our concerns, reactions, fears and faith,” said Schreiber.

“We are still very much sorting all this out – not unlike we did after the 2021 spa shootings in Atlanta or the waves of anti-Asian hate we’ve encountered since 2020,” the BCCC pastor said. She noted the troubling elements — that these multiple acts of violence happened during the “much longed-for celebration” of Lunar New Year, that Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans were victims and that both shooters were elder male Asian Americans. “This is a new type of shocking tragedy,” she said.

UCC Associate General Minister the Rev. Traci Blackmon attended the online gathering where those present “shared deep concerns about the well-being of our nation, and anger and shock more has not been done to restrict firearm purchases,” Schreiber said.

‘The importance of lamenting’

“Talking with Rev. Traci last night, she mentioned the importance of lamenting – to feel these events – and not move past the tragedy. I’m grateful for her comment. On Sunday, our worship service will include time to grieve and feel our feelings. We will use rituals, music and prayer to do this together.”

Schreiber said the service will include a refrain from Psalm 80, a communal psalm of lament, “Restore to us, God, the light of Your presence, and we shall be saved.”

“We will grieve and ponder, pray and hope. We will pray to be God’s Beloved Community and a blessing upon our neighbors.”

The Berkeley church created a statement on gun safety in June 2022. “Everyone is wounded by successive gun violence tragedies,” it reads. “We urge all elected officials to enact safer gun laws and policies for our safety, especially for our children and future generations. We do so in the name of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.”

‘When there are no words’

“In this moment my heart aches and there are no words that come forth that feel like enough to soothe the souls in Monterey Park,” the Rev. Velda Love wrote in a response to the shooting on the Join the Movement website. “Where there are no words, I pray we who believe in the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit will lean into the silence and hold space for healing, peace and justice to surround our Asian American and Pacific Islander siblings.”

The post by Love, UCC Minister for Racial Justice and leader of the Join the Movement Toward Racial Justice campaign, includes a list of ways to take action by responding “with compassion and commitment.” These include ways to support the Monterey Park community and to support movement building and healing for AAPI organizers, activists and community members.  

The UCC Officers issued a statement on Tuesday grieving the loss and violence that occurred in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay.

“Our hearts are broken for these families and for a world where the mobilization of hatred continues to be aided by our refusal to responsibly regulate guns,” they wrote. “May these grieving families feel our love and know our commitment to change.”

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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