AURORA, Colo. – Almost as soon as the gunfire ceased in the Century Theater in Aurora, Colo., local churches began meeting the needs of the hurting in the community and their own congregations.
“I immediately felt the same anxiety that many others felt,” said Mitchell Hamilton, pastor of Mississippi Avenue Baptist Church, “as I considered the very real possibility that one of our members might be directly affected. My second thought was to get to the church and begin organizing a response.”
The church, located less than a mile from the scene of the shootings, opened its doors for prayer vigils and counseling. All of the church staff members have been involved, Hamilton said, and other counselors were brought in, including one who had ministered following the Columbine shooting.
During one counseling session, Hamilton was faced with a teary eyed 6-year-old girl asking why her cousin died.
“It was tough,” Hamilton said of talking with the little girl and her mother. “The mother came to our church because that was the first place she thought might could help her daughter.”
After sharing some about heaven and praying with the family, Hamilton scheduled an appointment for them later that day with a professional grief counselor.
While several people came by the church and received counseling, others simply wanted a place to mourn and pray.
Located less than a mile from the scene of the Aurora shooting, Mississippi Avenue Baptist Church has offered hope and comfort to the suburban Denver community.
“A young Marine came by in tears. He ran in and just wanted to go to the altar,” said Allie McNider, associate pastor at Mississippi Avenue. “We lost two local servicemen, and he was grieving for them.”
Besides providing on-site help for the community, the church has empowered their members to minister to those around them.
“We offered any resource they may have needed,” McNider said, “anything from counseling to a gift card for family members to eat at local restaurants while they are here.”
“This is the essence of Ephesians 4:11-12,” Hamilton said. “Our members were able to touch our community in ways the staff never could.”
Rose Lamb, a Mississippi Avenue member, has been helping a co-worker who lost her son.
“Parents are not supposed to bury their kids,” Lamb said.
While prayer was the most important need, Lamb said she and other co-workers have been able to meet some of their friend’s immediate needs of “food, hugs, errands and daily visits to the home for emotional support.”
While the church may not always have the answer to the “why” questions, Lamb said Christians “can offer comfort and support through listening, prayer and just being there for a hurting world. Just offering to pray with someone makes a huge impact. People remember that.”
For Lamb, reaching out to the hurting should be how believers respond during tragedies. “Bottom line,” she said, “it’s what Christians are called to do.”
Lamb said her friend needs prayer to have the strength to keep going and her community needs to regain a sense of security that was ripped away early Friday morning.
“Folks need to feel safe,” she said. “There are so many who are struggling. Even those that were there but got out safe, their minds and hearts will be forever scarred. The city needs emotional healing as well as physical healing.”
Despite the tragic events, both Lamb and Hamilton also expressed amazement at seeing God’s hand at work since the shooting and even during those tragic moments in the theater.
In the midst of the pain, Hamilton rejoiced that the gunman’s weapon jammed and that he was taken into custody without incident, allowing the police to discern that his apartment was rigged with explosives, preventing additional deaths.
Lamb has seen non-Christian friends attend Mississippi Avenue and Christians come together in prayer and support.
“There are incredible testimonies of believers who were in critical places to save and counsel the hurting,” Hamilton said, “and there are miraculous survival stories.”
Ryan Heller, pastor of The Edge Church, a Southern Baptist church plant in Aurora, experienced one of those stories as he discovered that one of his members was among the 58 wounded.
Pierce O’Farrill told Dave Delozier of NBC 9 News that he and a friend were only a few feet from the gunman when he first unleashed his torrent of bullets. O’Farrill and his friend were hit and fell to the ground.
As he lay motionless on the floor unable to attempt an escape due to his gunshot wounds, O’Farrill heard the shooter walk toward him, stopping only six inches from him.
“He was literally standing directly above me, and I could feel his boot right next to my head,” O’Farrill said. “I just had my face down on the ground and stayed as still as I possibly could, and I prayed and prayed. He fired off a couple more rounds and then he left.”
As soon as they realized one of their own was one of the victims, The Edge Church began to minister to O’Farrill.
“Our whole staff has really been involved in encouraging him,” Heller said. “Lots of our people are visiting and loving on him. Kids from our children’s ministry made him get well cards. We visited him in the hospital and joined hands in prayer over him and his family.”
While O’Farrill will be sharing his story with his church family on Sunday, he has, in the words of his pastor, “stirred a national debate on forgiveness” after he told national media figures that he forgives the accused gunman.
The media exposure has allowed church members like O’Farrill and pastors like Hamilton to share their message personally with reporters and media personnel.
“We became very intentional to share the love of Christ and the gospel with each member of the press we met,” Hamilton said. “I had one videographer, with tears, tell me that he had never had anyone pray for him.”
Since the shooting, Mississippi Avenue has had more than 10 media outlets on the campus.
“God has allowed us to tell His story of hope to the world through the media,” McNider said. “This is a very small window. Next week, we could not pay them to come through our doors.”
However, through this tragedy, McNider feels that they were “able to show them a side of church they may not have experienced. From statements they made, they saw the true spirit of the living God through His people.”
Bob Ryan, team leader for the Denver-area Mile High Baptist Association, was clearly moved when speaking about the response of the area pastors and churches. “I’m so proud of my pastors,” Ryan said.
Ryan recalled the string of tragedies that have occurred in and around the Denver metro area, beginning with the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. He said these tragedies pose a danger to churches and Christians.
“You can become desensitized to pain and calloused to the hurting around you, but our pastors have not done that,” Ryan said. “They have responded with brokenness and responded with hope.”
Speaking of the Aurora tragedy along with the deaths of 14 in a recent truck accident in Texas, Ryan said Christians must always weep with the weeping and never stop being shocked at such events.
Mike Edlund, executive director of the Colorado Baptist General Convention, found the events hit “very close to home,” as his daughter and son-in-law live near the theater and she works at University Hospital, where many victims were taken after the shooting.
Edlund said that despite the vivid reminder of the fallenness of this world, a responsibility exists for Christians. “We have the message of hope that must be shared with our state,” Edlund said.
Hope was the theme that so many stressed as a community began seeking to move beyond this tragedy.
“The world will move on quickly,” McNider said, “but this is only a mile from here. We will have to drive past that theater as we travel around Aurora. That makes it more difficult to move on, but we will move on. We have to get up and proclaim the message of hope in the midst of what the world would say is hopeless.”
The church must be about “sharing hope in darkness,” Ryan said. “This Sunday, there will be a lot of talk about pain, and in a way that helps, but there will also be talk of hope.”
Hamilton had a similar message.
“We will continue to encourage our community,” he said. “As time moves forward, we will continue to give a message of hope. It is quite obvious that God is here and touching lives.”
McNider echoed these sentiments saying, “God will see us through this. He is beginning to give us the strength to put one foot in front of the other.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Aaron Earls is a writer based in Wake Forest, N.C. With additional reporting by Amber Cassady, Colorado Baptist General Convention correspondent.)