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Aug 13, 2014 | The Rev. Nicole Janelle

Community Seeks Healing Together After Shooting

In the wee hours of Saturday, May 24, I was awakened by a series of texts from the local police force. The press releases spoke of a gunman and multiple casualties in Isla Vista. Stunned, I jumped on the Internet, only to find that sleepy Isla Vista, California, had already made its way on to the front page of leading news outlets, including the BBC, my go-to news source.


The next week or two would be a blur for this college town and its inhabitants. Reporters would descend upon us in droves, probing for any new information they could use to embellish their stories. Candlelight vigils and university-wide memorials would be hastily organized. Heated campus-wide conversations around gun control, better mental health interventions, misogyny, racism and violence would take place. Students and professors would struggle to find a way forward in the short weeks leading up to final examinations and graduation. And in the midst of all of this, people would carve out both public and private spaces in which to grieve.


In the hours after the shooting, our campus church mobilized and opened its doors in a gesture of hospitality. Parishioners took turns hanging out in the chapel and brought in snacks and beverages. We saw a small handful of folks walk through our doors looking for spiritual solace, but most of these people already had some sort of connection to our campus ministry or one of the programs housed in our space. 


On Sunday morning, the day after the shooting, church was a bit more crowded than normal, but again, there weren’t too many newcomers. Rather, our chairs were full with members of our own community, eager to be with one another and process the events of the weekend together. 


My parishioners seemed a bit perplexed by this dynamic and wondered why more people weren’t turning to the church for solace during this difficult time. I can’t say I was altogether surprised by the lack of new faces. My Jewish and Catholic colleagues were reporting much of the same—their pews were full, but full of their own people.


What did surprise me, as I looked out upon the landscape of this college community, was the creative spaces where “two or three” and even hundreds were gathering to grieve, process and connect.


The shooter’s deadly rampage left in its wake memorial upon memorial—makeshift altars consisting of flower bouquets, burning candles, cards and drawings. Across from the Isla Vista Deli, the site of one of the murders, a palm tree had been “knit bombed” with peace signs. Outside of the Associated Students building, huge chalkboards with the names of the victims affixed at the top were covered with messages and drawings. Inside student apartments and dorms, small groups of friends huddled together to comfort one another. In classrooms and lecture halls, faculty and students were talking about what had just happened.


On the one-week anniversary of the shootings, our campus ministry installed a peace labyrinth outside of our chapel. The project had been in the works all quarter and it just so happened that the installation was scheduled for the weekend after the shooting. That day, students and area Episcopalians gathered to plunk down into the ground brightly colored river rocks that had been painted over the course of spring quarter by circles of students and community members in a “peace theme.” The following day we blessed the new labyrinth after our church service, praying among other things that it would be a “healing container where we can touch our joys and sorrows.” Then, all those present—church people, labyrinth installers, campus ministry students, Co-op members from across the street, homeless folks and Dreamer students— gathered on the front lawn to “break bread” over potluck dishes and fancy grilled sausages. 


As I looked out over the scene, I thought to myself: “Yes, this is how we heal from such profound tragedy. One prayer at a time, one community meal at a time, one conversation at a time, one action at a time, one friendship at a time.”


Janelle is vicar and chaplain of St. Michael’s University Church and the Episcopal Campus Ministry at UC Santa Barbara.