Community ponders long-term healing

BY SUSAN KIM | Wilkinsburg, PA | March 17, 2000

In the wake of a tragic shooting that claimed three lives in this Pittsburgh suburb, residents say they are determined to keep up the recovery that started minutes after the incident.

A community-wide prayer walk, family counseling, and a community church service are among the ways in which churches and other agencies are responding to people's feelings of trauma.

More than 400 people attended a "prayer walk" last weekend in which people walked past places where shootings occurred, including a McDonald's and Burger King where the gunman opened fire.

"We prayed while we walked," said the Rev. Michael Golphin, pastor at Deliverance Baptist Church and also president of the ecumenical Wilkinsburg Ministerial Association.

Local pastors said they were surprised at the high turnout. "We thought a couple hundred people would come to the walk," said Golphin. "But we were happy to have somewhere around 400 people."

On Thursday night, Wilkinsburg families gathered once again at the South Avenue United Methodist Church for "Wilkinsburg Family Talks" in which families met with counselors from the Center for Victims of Violent Crime and from other agencies.

On Wednesday evening, the community will again gather in an ecumenical community-wide service entitled "We're Come This Far by Faith." Hosted at the Deliverance Baptist Church, the service will offer a faith-based approach to community cohesion, said Golphin.

"The church holds 600 and we hope to fill it," he added.

Other Wilkinsburg agencies are also responding, both in cooperation with local churches and on a wider national scale. Wilkinsburg Community Ministry is encouraging churches to send people to the Million Mom March, a gathering of mothers and other people on May 14 -- Mother's Day -- on the Mall in Washington, DC who want to advocate for stronger gun control measures, specifically more rigorous licensing and registration requirements.

Stan Hankins, associate for disaster response for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, said that the response by churches in Wilkinsburg could be a good model for churches in other communities.

"It seemed like these churches responded very quickly," he said. "That's something for everyone to look at."

"And we're going to continue with this," said Golphin. "We want to be visibly responding in the long-term."

In Wilkinsburg, the alleged gunman set fire to his apartment, shot a maintenance worker, then shot people at two fast-food restaurants, and took hostages in a nearby office building before surrendering to police. That rampage occurred just one day after a first-grader at a Michigan school shot and killed a six-year-old girl.

Immediately after the shooting the Covenant Church of Pittsburgh, situated across the street from the office building in which the gunman held hostages, opened its doors to survivors. Pastors from the Wilkinsburg Ministerial Association gathered to minister to people and help them contact their families. At least six restaurant employees, their families, and other community members met at the church. Some local pastors also held a prayer vigil that evening while others went to area hospitals to visit the critically injured people and their families. Church leaders are also looking at long-term response to the shooting, including advocating for stronger gun control measures.

Communities that been traumatized by public violence often take years to heal, according to response specialists.

Bill Guindon, chaplain for West Metro Fire and Rescue in Littleton, CO, said that a sense of normalcy has yet to return to that community after the tragic school shooting at Columbine High School last year. "It's not over yet," he said. "We are trying to maintain some sense of normalcy but it's frustrating. It's an emotional roller coaster for people."

In an effort to prevent public violence, some communities have started organizing mediation programs for youth and adults. "It's surprising to see the number of disputes that have been solved -- but that could have escalated," said Monica Young, director of Friends in Action for Montgomery County Community Ministries in Maryland.

This week, students from Jonesboro Middle School gathered at the Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, Ark. for their fourth year of a camp especially for youth exposed to school violence. That Arkansas school had a shooting in March 1998 that left four students and a teacher dead.

In February, the Presbyterian-affiliated Ferncliff Camp coordinated travel for 13 Jonesboro students to Denver, Colo., where they met with students from Littleton and from Conyers, Ga., where a student shot and injured six other students in May 1999.

Called a Summit of Schools, the meeting was opened by Columbine student Heather Lietz, who described the purpose of the gathering. "We are here to discuss questions about the school violence we have experienced. Be respectful of other people's ideas and feelings, and listen to each other. If you feel uncomfortable at any time, please let us know. Participation is at your discretion."

The students focused their discussion around questions such as: What has helped you in healing? What should schools be doing to stop the violence? Should we start an awareness program to educate young children?

David Gill, director of the Ferncliff Camp, said the group worked hard. "They made history because this was the first such gathering anywhere."

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