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Churches respond quickly to shooting survivors

BY SUSAN KIM | Wilkinsburg, PA | March 1, 2000

As the national news media reported the second public shooting incident in two days, faith-based organizations in the Pittsburgh area were already responding to the needs of survivors.

The latest incident occurred in a Pittsburgh suburb where three people were killed and two others critically injured. The shooting occurred just one day after a first-grader at a Michigan school shot and killed a six-year-old girl.

The alleged gunman in Pennsylvania, apparently flew into a rage over a broken door about 11 a.m. on Wednesday, 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.

One person was shot at a Burger King and at least two at a nearby McDonald's restaurant, according to police. The two restaurants are located less than a half-mile from the apartment and about 100 yards apart from each other.

Immediately after the shootings 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. "We were praying, crying, and listening to families," said the Rev. Janet Hellner-Burris, pastor at the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg. Wilkinsburg is about six miles east of Pittsburgh.

The Rev. Iris Goshay, pastor at the Covenant Church of Pittsburgh, said that everyone had a role. "Our hospitality team got juice and coffee, our maintenance team got the building ready. Other teams were constantly in prayer," she said.

Local pastors also went to area hospitals to visit the critically injured people and their families.

The Rev. Michael Golphin, pastor at Deliverance Baptist Church and president of the ministerial association, said that it is important for churches to visibly respond after trauma like this. "We should be just as visible in times of tragedy as we are on Sunday morning," he said. "I believe we have an obligation and a responsibility to be visible. People need counseling and prayer. We are here to confirm that, in all situations, God is still God. We wanted to bring a presence of God into the community at a time when there's a lot of chaos."

Church leaders are also looking at long-term response to the shooting, including advocating for stronger gun control measures.

The Rev. Vivian Lovingood, director of the ecumenical Wilkinsburg Community Ministry and also a Presbyterian pastor, said she would now incorporate the goal of getting guns off the street into her ministry. "I am interested in working with local authorities to have a gun buy-back program," she said.

Pittsburgh City Council President Bob O'Connor said he called President Clinton on Thursday to demand stronger gun-control legislation.

Pastors in Wilkinsburg agreed that their response could not have been as rapid if their ties through the ministerial association did not exist. "The ministerial association is very strong here," said Hellner-Burris.

Some of the pastors also had experience in responding to previous disasters. "After an apartment complex caught on fire and left several families homeless, we decided to work on a disaster team. We're still formulating it but what we had already done helped us act quickly in this case," said Golphin.

Hellner-Burris spoke of the courage and care the employees at the fast-food restaurants showed for each other, even when they were terrified. "Those employees are heroes. When their assistant manager was shot, they stayed by his side. I was deeply touched and moved by what they did for each other," she said.

The ministerial association planned a prayer vigil at the Christian Church for Wednesday evening, inviting the whole community to attend the ecumenical service of healing.

"I witnessed a shooting in my church parking lot five or six years ago and dealt with my own reaction to that trauma. I had some inkling -- only some -- of what these people went through," said Hellner-Burris.

Police reported that survivors heard the alleged gunman say he would harm only white people. Golphin added that he hoped this aspect of the incident would not strain race relations -- which he said have vastly improved over the last several years -- in Wilkinsburg. "This was an isolated incident -- not a racist thing. I pray that this will not raise a lot of racial tension. I'd like to direct our prayers toward healing."

Federal authorities have already begun a preliminary hate crime investigation.

Golphin added that he also hoped another shooting would not happen anytime soon. "You know some things can happen in one city can have a domino effect," he said.

Many pastors added that they are considering developing both a long-term and preventative response. "We haven't had time to think about what the next step will be, but there are definitely things we can do to heal the community -- and try to prevent this from happening again," said Lovingood.

After shooting at people in Burger King and McDonald's, the alleged gunman reportedly held several people in wheelchairs hostage at a senior hospice center that is housed in an adjacent office building. He then surrendered in a hallway after keeping police at bay for two hours. The hostages emerged unharmed. During the standoff, more than three-dozen children from a third-floor day-care center in the building were evacuated, along with other workers.

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