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Faith communities pray for end to shootings

BY SUSAN KIM | ROCKVILLE, Md. | October 6, 2002

"We pray for those who are fearful."

—Rev. Connie Paulson

For an hour, on the lawn of the Millian United Methodist Church Saturday night, Montgomery County residents wrestled with fear.

They stood outside holding lit candles as pastors and laypeople prayed and spoke their minds about what fright does to the spirit.

In the wake of six random slayings and one shooting by a yet-to-be-caught killer, there is, as one resident put it, "so little we can do."

But some fearful people found there is something they can do -- pray about what's happening and find comfort in being together -- on the lawn of Millian church, at St. Mary's Catholic Church, and at other prayer vigils and memorial services in the area.

Nearly 1,000 people gathered at St. Mary's to hear Cardinal Theodore McCarrick talk about what anxiety does to people. "We must say to ourselves at this time, as at every time when problems come, as on Sept. 11 -- do not let anxiety, do not let fear turn us back," he said.

The five victims in the DC suburbs were gunned down in daylight in public places during a 16-hour span last week: two at gas stations, one outside a grocery store, another outside a post office and the fifth as he mowed the grass at an auto dealership.

A sixth victim -- a 72-year-old pedestrian -- was shot to death as he stood on a DC street corner.

A woman loading packages into her car at a mall in Fredericksburg, Va. was also shot but will recover, authorities said.

Each person was shot once from a distance and there were no known witnesses to the killings.

Saturday night investigators announced that the bullet used to shoot the Virginia woman matches ammunition used to kill at least four of six victims in Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland. The other two bullets were so damaged investigators doubted they would be able to reach any conclusions regarding those killings, but they strongly suspect one slayer is behind them all.

The killer used a high-powered rifle.

Many DC suburbanites have tried to go about their businesses -- but many admit they're looking over their shoulders.

"We pray for those who are fearful," said the Rev. Connie Paulson at the Millian Church. "We pray for those who are wondering -- who's watching over me?

"Be courageous," Paulson urged her flock.

And she joined them in asking -- why? "Why such senseless death?"

Montgomery County, one of Maryland's most affluent, is home to many government workers, lobbyists and diplomats.

One DC pastor, the Rev. Doug Sands of the Simpson-Hamline United Methodist Church, who stood at prayer vigils and memorial services Saturday night said for years he had been urging area pastors to engage in a ministry encouraging nonviolence.

"You see, on the streets of Washington, this kind of senseless death happens every day. I'd held workshops and invited people from this area and none have shown up."

Now they're interested, he added. "They're interested in nonviolence when they're hurting."

Sands said local residents need to talk about how their culture glamorizes violence, whether through games, TV shows, and movies -- such as the recently released "Red Dragon" which features a serial killer.

Sands also urged local pastors to distinguish the difference between justice and vengeance. Especially in the wake of 9/11, he said, "we are in danger of losing the faith of love and forgiveness of the enemy."

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose said that investigators were talking to one man late Saturday afternoon, but they stressed that he was not a suspect and no weapons were found with him.

Moose also encouraged residents to go about their normal lives and enjoy their weekend.

"The community is safe for the moment," he said.

At least some residents likened the shootings to the anthrax scare because the violence made people feel vulnerable going about their daily lives -- getting the mail or filling the car up.

In these post-9/11 days, children and youth were hit especially hard, said some parents. "Many thought it was another 9/11," said one mother. Her daughter's school was in lockdown last week, with recess, outside activities and field trips canceled.

Extracurricular and outdoor activities were set to resume this week.

Students in at least three Montgomery County public schools lost a relative in the shooting. Crisis intervention teams were sent to those schools.

Youth and adults alike gathered at prayer vigils were coming together as a fearful and hurting community, said Rev. Paulson. "The death of one affects us all."

Montgomery County police said about 100 of investigators were following up on about 600 credible tips, many provided by the public. They were working with federal officials to search for two suspects they believe fled in a white box truck with black lettering on the side.

Many area residents were hoping and praying they catch the killer soon. "God, be with our law enforcement teams," prayed Paulson. "You can bring the snipers to justice. You know where they are.

"We pray that the evil one will be stopped," she added, before the crowd began singing the refrain of "We Shall Overcome."

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