Churches take role confronting violence

BY SUSAN KIM | CONYERS, GA | May 27, 1999


CONYERS, GA (May 27, 1999) -- As people gathered here Sunday for an

ecumenical Service of Comfort, they were not alone in spirit. From a

teleconference on watched by hundreds of people nationwide, to countless

simple talks between pastors and youth, the faith community is responding

to recent and highly troubling incidents of school violence.

"We've got to keep reminding ourselves that, in the midst of all this, God

is with us," said Amy Morgan, associate pastor at the Ebenezer United

Methodist Church, where the Conyers service was held.

Thousands of miles away in the still grief-stricken town of Littleton, CO,

the Rev. Peter van Elderen said that churches have a more pronounced

presence now, not only in areas hit by school violence -- such as Littleton

and Conyers -- but throughout the nation.

"It has been interesting and sad for me to recognize the extent to which

people beyond this state have been affected," he said. "I would guess that

thousands of people across the country are experiencing post-traumatic

syndrome right now."

Elderen's theory on the nation's collective reaction -- and the resulting

prominent presence of the faith community -- has been brought to bear

recently by record participation in national faith-based events, a flow of

creative ideas spawned through interfaith efforts, and the sheer numbers of

calls and letters pouring into local churches from parents and youth who

need support or want to offer help.

Elderen, who is a pastor at the Horizon Community Christian Reformed Church

in Littleton, added that a faith-based response is grounded in God's

presence. "There is no technique," he said. "As a faith community, you have

to act based on how you're led by God."

While there may be no single technique, there are many creative approaches

to helping young people and their families. Thousands of people nationwide

participated in a United Methodist-produced teleconference on youth

violence two weeks ago. The 90-minute broadcast, entitled "Kids, Guns,

Violence: How to Make a Difference" was uplinked live from the Nashville

studios of United Methodist Communications to 600 downlink sites in 48

states plus the Bahamas.

The broadcast sparked an on-air dialogue among groups that don't regularly

interact. "We witnessed an incredible grouping of persons that might not

normally come together," said Shirley Strutchen, director of United

Methodist Teleconference Connection. "We had the National Guard, churches

from all different faiths, universities and colleges, government agencies,

parents, youth."

Although the teleconference had been planned since last fall, Strutchen

attributes the record response to concern stemming from the recent

incidents. At the end of the teleconference, the panel of featured experts

asked the viewers to make a commitment toward making a difference in their

community.

"Hopefully all of these groups and viewers are now setting up their own

dialogue sessions," she said.

Throughout the country, people seem newly determined to open communication

and foster new coordination between parents, schools, and churches. In a

personal speech of thanks to Sunday School teachers, Susan Sayre, church

school superintendent at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Howard County,

Md., urged parents to talk to their children. "These church school teachers

are here for your children. We've been talking about violence and what to

do about it. But these conversations need to continue at home."

"No matter what your politics are, Hillary Clinton had a good point when

she said 'it takes a village.' "

In Howard County and nearby Montgomery County, school attendance dropped by

60 percent on May 10 because of a hoax involving vague threats to area

schools. Monica Young, director of the Friends In Action program at the

Montgomery County Community Ministry, agreed that effective response must

unite churches, communities, parents, and youth.

Young recruits teams of mentors from 108 area churches of all

denominations, then pairs them with families who have been referred by

schools or community counselors.

"But instead of the traditional one-on-one mentors, entire families are

paired with mentor teams that are anywhere from five to 20 people," she

said. "We found that this approach works better because usually a young

person's problem isn't with him or her alone. It's usually a family

problem."

If your expertise doesn't lie in counseling, teaching, or even working with

youth, there are still outlets for response. The Rev. JoEllen Willis, a

Unitarian Universalist pastor in Little Rock, Ark., is an avid crafter.

"I've been corresponding via e-mail with the crafting community in

Littleton. Some major scrapbook companies there have already agreed to

donate supplies so that young people can create memory books."

Also in Little Rock, the Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center is planning

to open its doors to Littleton students in a summer camp where youth can

express themselves through music, art, storytelling, environmental

activities, campfire ceremonies, bible study, and sports. The camp is under

the jurisdiction of the Presbytery of Arkansas but is supported by many

major denominational sponsors.

Last summer the camp was created in the wake of a school shooting in

Jonesboro, Ark. in which two boys opened fire on a school playground,

leaving four students and a teacher dead and 10 others wounded. Youth

counseling experts maintain healing retreats aid the grief and recovery

process by temporarily removing people from their environment of trauma.

Posted May 27, 1999


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