Faith communities gather to grieve, remember and pray after Highland Park parade tragedy
On the morning of the 4th of July, Rev. Esther Lee at Christ United Methodist Church (UMC) in Deerfield, Ill., was busy getting ready to welcome the community back to parade festivities after a two-year break due to the pandemic.
"I was setting up for our annual 400 hot dog giveaway and opening our doors when the news alert came across my phone about a shooting," Lee said. "I said to myself that can't be us, but then we saw all the emergency vehicles speeding down the road."
Soon after, Lee and church volunteers helping that morning began learning more details about a mass shooting at the Highland Park parade in their neighboring community just three miles away, and the Deerfield parade would be canceled.
Linda Floren, a longtime member of Christ UMC, was volunteering that morning and said it got scarier and scarier the more they saw emergency vehicles and police cars from many towns racing past the church towards Highland Park down Deerfield road.
"We just started calling and texting everybody we knew," said Floren, who said many Christ UMC members are Highland Park residents. "Some were hunkered down and some flew to safety, but all were OK."
Like many, Floren said they felt frightened and confused. "We did impromptu prayers on the patio," said Floren. "I think we were just frozen in fear, not knowing what we should do, but we wanted to be here for each other, yet wanted to get home and get safe."
What was supposed to be a day of celebration and fun turned into sheer chaos, trauma, fear and unimaginable heartache after a gunman opened fire on parade-goers killing seven people and wounding dozens more.
To bring the community words of solace, leaders of many denominations and faiths came together to offer prayers of healing and hope at area churches and synagogues the day after the tragedy.
Christ UMC opened its doors to the community for a prayer vigil on July 5 offering the singing of "Amazing Grace," scripture readings, lighting of candles and a time to remember the victims and their families.
"We come here with grief, fear, anger, longing for peace and healing comfort," said Lee. "We long for an end to gun violence and the pain of losing loved ones in such tragic ways."
Rev. Cal Haines, who is newly appointed to Grace UMC in nearby Lake Bluff, participated in the vigil by reading scripture.
"Throughout the New Testament when people are in trouble, they come together," said Haines. "Community is the one thing we can embrace and share our shared experiences. We don't have the answers. It's frightening. It's frustrating, but it's really important to be together in a crisis like this."
The Rev. Jake Cho moved to Highland Park two weeks ago with his wife and 7-month-old daughter to begin his new appointment at Galilee UMC in Highland Park and had just begun exploring the downtown area. He said he was shocked and distraught to hear the news of the deadly mass shooting.
"I haven't been able to sleep. I feel so helpless and furious at the same time," said Rev. Cho. "My heart is so heavy for all the victims of the shooting and I cannot stop thinking, what if my family was one of them."
While still so new to the community, Rev. Cho found ways to offer pastoral care through Facebook and spent time in the downtown area the day after the tragedy providing prayers and blessings to whoever needed them. He also participated in an evening Interfaith/Ecumenical prayer service on July 5 held at the Highland Park Presbyterian Church, which included elected officials and faith leaders from the surrounding communities.
"I encourage you to cry with one another. It's OK to cry. It's OK to grieve," said Cho to those gathered at the vigil. "Lord, be with us in our struggles, in our weeping, in our pains and may the peace of Christ be felt by those who weep together."
The vigil included naming the seven victims, followed by a moment of silence. The Rev. Quincy Worthington of Highland Park Presbyterian Church provided words of hope.
"We gather here tonight in the hope and promise that we might see God in our midst on the face of each of us, and we might feel God working healing through us," said Worthington. "We are in a time of deep hurt and time of darkness, and yet we hold fast to the hope that somehow and someway there's a light that shines through this darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome."
Still shaken, Illinois State Senator Julie Morrison (D-Lake Forest) shared how she was at the parade with her grandchildren and called the mass shooting a "massacre."
"It's not a word we use very often, but that's what happened," said Morrison describing the horrific tragedy. "We all have suffered a real loss. We really lost the state of innocence, but coming together tonight, we are collectively wrapping our arms around each other, leaning upon each other and knowing with the help of God we will go forward."
The Rev. Dale Susan Edmonds, pastor at Trinity UCC in Deerfield, introduced a time of prayer to close the service.
"Lord, we are shaken and bewildered. Our safety is shattered. Our hearts are broken. Our faith stunned and quivering," Edmonds prayed. "Steady us Lord, that we may hear you and that we may feel you. Open us up to the possibility that we may see a new way to be together in this world."
At the site of the parade tragedy, a flower memorial grows along the sidewalk. Many strollers, chairs and other items left behind by fleeing parade-goers remain in the secured area, and when the crime tape is eventually removed, the grieving process will continue one day at a time.
Faith leaders say the community is stronger together and the pastors said they will continue to be available alongside all those who need support and a place to find comfort in the days and months to come.
"No matter why we come, rather for comfort or hope with every worry, all of your anger, all the sadness and anxiety, all are welcome in this space," Lee said to those gathered at the vigil. "May we listen and look for God's presence in this time and may God's presence surround us, comfort us and hold us in this moment."
If you need to reach out to a pastor, contact firstname.lastname@example.org at Christ UMC or visit www.hppcil.org for the Highland Park Presbyterian Church.