by Rev. Racquel Ray

Assoc. Minister of Congregational Life

Last week, my colleague wrote that he was troubled; troubled about the realities for LGBTQ+ communities, especially among children and youth. I am also troubled. My heart is heavy for the senseless and violent loss of life in the epidemic of school shootings. Most recently, the tragedy at the Covenant School, a private Presbyterian school co-located with its sponsoring church in Nashville TN on March 27, 2023, has really broken my heart. That same day, there were active shooter threats called in to Barrington High School.

Immediately, as the live news coverage broke on that Monday, some outlets began talking about the types of weapons used, some began discussing legislation, some began with mental health, and others led with the need to ‘harden’ soft targets – like schools and churches – with defensive weapons.

We’ve heard all the arguments about ‘good guys with guns’ stopping ‘bad guys with guns’. We’ve heard the history of the shooters’ family of origin, mental wellness, encounters with law enforcement, and previous encounters within their academic settings. And then, at some point, we hear the 911 calls and watch news coverage of the grief and memorials. We may hear from some family members and how precious their loved ones are – were.

I gathered with our Youth Group that night, Monday March 27. Each week we end our hour together with a prayer circle in the Meditation Room. We light a candle, sit in a big circle (which is growing weekly), and share our joys and concerns within a simple evening prayer liturgy. That night, our Barrington kids were shaken by the school shooting and by the real-time lockdown that occurred at Barrington Schools when the threating calls came in. Authorities later learned that the calls were a hoax, were made to several local schools, and that there was ‘no credible threat’ to our students.

However, I can tell you, our kids were deeply affected. In the building, the lockdown started at a time when kids were transitioning between classes. They all knew that routine lockdown drills occur at pre-planned times when kids are seated in classrooms. This small element of transition added additional chaos to the response. Kids scrambled to find shelter in the classrooms. They barricaded the doors as they have practiced since the historic Columbine shootings in 1999. For students, this was NOT a drill. This was real and carried all of the immediate fear and trauma that a school shooting would. They shared those post-traumatic responses at Youth Group. They were afraid.

A week later, after our kids had some time to process the previous events, they were still affected. As they shared stories, I learned of a student faced with an unthinkable situation. When students barricaded themselves into BHS classrooms, there were still a few kids in the hallways. Our kids had to face the moral trauma of trying to decide if those in the hallways were shooters needing barriers or were they the next victims needing protective entry? These are the same impossible determinations that military members face when determining ‘friend’ or ‘foe’; it’s rooted in split-second judgements and results in life-long moral injury. Kids. On a Monday. In our safe schools. In our great town.

Some of our kids were carrying anger and shame that some of their split-second decision making, of them or their classmates, were based in racial profiling or outward appearance. A kid in the hallway who chose to wear ‘all black’ that day was determined to possibly be the shooter and was not permitted into the safety of the barricaded classroom. Students and teachers will live with those moral injury causing decisions for life.

And, we were fortunate. Our schools did not actually have an armed person on campus. No one, ‘good guy with a gun’ or ‘bad guy with a gun’ was actually shooting. But, I have had to take a second, third, fourth look at my children each morning to memorize their outfits – in case I would have to identify them in the event of an actual shooter. Some kids and I would imagine teachers are not able to return to their classrooms as a normal PTSD response to an abnormal situation.

In Tennessee, the home of the Covenant School, three legislators are facing expulsion from their elected posts in the legislature because they could no longer keep silent about the need to do something about gun violence. Watching the news coverage of their outbursts, shouting and waving signs, I could recall the Palm Sunday Procession, the crowd shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God! Hosanna!” Surely, if these leaders do not cry out, perhaps the stones will?!

Weekly, my co-pastor and I meet to discuss our trajectory as a church. We pray for our congregation. We plan liturgies. We project long-term plans. When we are troubled, as he was last week and I am this week, we share those burdens. And we ask God for direction. Often, with help from the Holy Spirit, we realize that the response falls to us, to Barrington Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. With a spectrum of congregations across our sweet town, we are often the prophetic voice. In partnership with Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman, and our other clergy colleagues, we are often on the precipice of social justice issues.

As a United Church of Christ congregation, we are often called to action. As UCC pastors, we are avowed to our Marks of Ministry and the call to live the love and justice of Jesus. Blessedly, we also have an autonomous choice not to get involved. Morally and Spiritually, I don’t feel as though we actually do have a choice. WE MUST DO SOMETHING!

I’m a veteran. I have carried – and shot – an M-16 weapon. I have seen the destruction from one of these weapons. There are rarely survivors from these weapons because they are specifically designed to be efficiently destructive. I cannot comprehend what these weapons would do to fragile bodies or why we would need them outside of war. I certainly wouldn’t want to see them used in schools or our church – not by attackers or for defense.

As we gather on this solemn day of remembrance, this Maundy Thursday, the day of Holy Week devoted to the re-membering of the Body of Christ, the body broken, the blood spilled, for us, let us remember that what we do for the least of these we also do for Christ, the ONE who freely offered his body and blood, ONCE and FOR ALL, as a perfect sacrifice. Let us remember that we are now the Body of Christ. He has no hands but ours, no feet but ours, no speech but ours, and no voice or vote but ours. Surely, if we don’t cry out for the least of these, creation itself will!