By Stan Friedman
TUCSON, AZ (February 10, 2011) – Members of Grace Community Covenant Church honored Associate Pastor Jed Hollenbach, who was concluding his ministry there, during a morning worship service Sunday that included four baptisms and commissioning of a short-term missionary.
They also prayed for another church member (name withheld upon request) who had been standing in line on Saturday to meet U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who represents residents in one Tucson congressional district. Giffords was critically wounded when a gunman opened fire in a shopping center parking lot where she was greeting constituents.
The church member, who completed three tours of duty in Vietnam, was grazed by one of the bullets. “He’s a scrappy hard-edged Vietnam War vet, but he’s one of the sweetest guys you’ll ever know,” said his friend and former pastor Dan Johnson, who spoke with him Sunday.
After others in the crowd disarmed the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, and wrestled him to the ground, the church member kept his foot on the Glock semi-automatic weapon that had been used to shoot 20 people, killing six. Loughner has been charged in the crime.
Another connection between the crime and the congregation is an FBI agent who attends the church and is assisting in the investigation. “We’ve been affected by it from all sides,” Hollenbach said on Sunday.
The congregation also prayed for Loughner and his family. Some members knew Loughner when he was growing up and had even welcomed him into their homes. “It’s easy to forget that he is a person,” Hollenbach said. “We don’t have that luxury. Is it easy to pray for him? No. Is it comfortable? No.”
Several members of the congregation thanked Hollenbach after the service for the prayers.
Like other residents, church members are trying to make sense of how this could have happened “in our backyard,” says Adrian Pearson. “That’s a store (Safeway) where many of us shop.” Christina-Taylor Green, the nine-year-old who was slain attended a school near the church.
Celebrating the baptisms and commissioning the missionary were pre-planned events, but provided a first step in helping the congregation work through emotions surrounding the tragedy. “It really re-focused our top priorities,” Hollenbach said. “When you’re in the midst of confusion and tragedy, they remind you that the reason we can experience new life is because of Christ.”
The church conducted a special prayer service on Sunday evening to pray for the community and give the congregation guidance on how it should proceed. “This is an opportunity for the church to respond with the gospel,” Hollenbach said. “But how to do that amid the contradictory emotions is uncharted territory.”
In his last sermon, Hollenbach exhorted the congregation to be messengers of hope, pointing out that their actions will bear witness to the power of the gospel.
Johnson, who is pastor of Eastside Covenant Church and helped plant Grace Community, agreed. “It is an opportunity for the churches to be peacemakers.”
Johnson says his congregation is dealing with shock and sadness. He noted that some members felt shame because they believe the vitriolic speech by people of different political ideologies contributed to the tragedy.
“That kind of speech is grabbed on to by people who are emotionally unstable,” Johnson said.
“There’s a lot of confusion and hurt, but our church just hit it head on,” Hollenbach added. “We acknowledged that this has happened in our city.”