Some churches long have held special Christmas services to acknowledge the pain and loss many people feel surrounding the holidays. But in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Las Vegas, sadness and grief are particularly intense this year for those impacted by two senseless tragedies.
Amid the aftermath of deadly massacres this fall in both cities, pastors there are seeking avenues to bring consolation and comfort.
The “primary” way to minister to grieving people “isn’t a five-step method as much as it is just looking up and saying, ‘God, what would You have me to say? What would You have me to do?’” said Frank Pomeroy, pastor of Sutherland Springs’ First Baptist Church, where a gunman killed 26 people – including his 14-year-old daughter Annabelle – and wounded some 20 others Nov. 5.
In Las Vegas – where a separate gunman killed 58 people and injured more than 500 more Oct. 1 at an outdoor country music festival – pastor Michael Rochelle said “a heaviness” remains over the city this Christmas. He noted the “ministry of presence” as well as “active listening” have been important ministry tools.
For Pomeroy, the best way to help families cope with grief this December has varied from household to household.
For one church member recuperating from his gunshot wound in a rehabilitation facility, the pastor extended a visit to four and a half hours because the injured man “just needed to talk more than anything else.” Grieving with another family meant offering to help with a construction project at their house and playing superheroes with their hospitalized son. For others, referral to a professional mental health care provider has been the best avenue of ministry.
“We haven’t been called to be preachers as much as we’ve been called to be ministers,” Pomeroy told Baptist Press (BP). “… Run towards the fight rather than away from it is what I would tell other pastors” seeking to alleviate holiday depression.
As for his own grief over Annabelle, Pomeroy said he and his wife Sherri are taking things “one day at a time” and “haven’t really had time to process.”
One way God has blessed Pomeroy’s ministry is by increasing worship attendance at First Baptist from about 75 before the shooting to 300 now – three quarters of whom were previously inactive members or sporadic attendees who have renewed their commitments to Christ.
“There has been an exponential increase in people rededicating and turning their heart back” to Christ, Pomeroy said, adding, “We are still celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior.”
Rochelle, pastor of Shadow Hills Church in Las Vegas, said the city’s October massacre seems to have contributed to depression, anxiety and family struggles. Those problems have been amplified by a steady stream of events memorializing the shooting and “pulling off the scab.”
To help reduce anxiety and depression, Rochelle and other pastors at Shadow Hills have encouraged believers to build routines that direct their attention to God and away from negative circumstances.
“Give God the first moment of every day,” Rochelle told BP. “Before you even get out of bed, you just acknowledge, ‘You’re with me. I know You’re here.’ You give Him the first day of every week” by attending worship. “You give Him the first dollar of every paycheck” by tithing, and “you give Him the first chance for counsel in any decision.”
A routine of focusing on God can help those experiencing holiday grief of any variety, Rochelle said.
John Revell ministered as a volunteer police chaplain following the December 2012 fatal shooting of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. He told BP a key to helping people amid loss and grief at Christmas is “to lead more with care and compassion than particular messages or instructions.”
“Hurting people may ask for an explanation” of why a tragedy has occurred, said Revell, founder of Life Line Chaplaincy, a Connecticut-based ministry for first responders and their families. But “they really want love. They want comfort. My experience is that comfort comes more from presence, hugs and listening and crying with people than trying to give them an explanation.”
“Demonstration” of God’s love, Revell said, open doors for “declaration” of God’s Word.
When opportunity for declaration arises, grieving individuals often are helped by reminders that the first Christmas also was a “dark time” for many of God’s people, Revell said. The Jews were oppressed by Rome as well as a murderous King Herod; Mary faced a “daunting task” with her unplanned pregnancy; and Joseph had to make some “critical decisions.”
“The birth of Christ brought the glorious light of God into the present,” Revell said. “It pierced the darkness of the world.”
Ian Jones, professor of counseling at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, urged pastors to “seek intentional engagement” this Christmas with people who have experienced loss and other challenges during the past year. Their sadness, he said, can be “aggravated by the apparent joy and happiness streamed through music, television ads and festive decorations and parties.”
Following tragedy or loss, “some people may shut down emotionally, struggle with guilt and an awareness of their own mortality, react to certain sounds or particular places that trigger memories, have difficulties eating or sleeping or act out and engage in risky behavior. Look for and pay particular attention to these responses,” said Jones, who provided counseling at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, following a 1999 shooting there that killed seven people.
“Try to normalize the emotions and physical responses – they are to be expected in light of the tragedy,” Jones told BP in written comments. “Assure them that there is no one proper way to grieve in terms of time, intensity and expression. Assure people of God’s love and abiding presence and your prayers. Lead them to an assurance that God is in control – even [as He was] while Jesus was dying on the cross.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)