“Prayer alone is not enough” is a statement that pastors aren’t used to hearing from their church leaders. But that was the message of a missive sent out to individual churches from the Episcopal Dioceses after the attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. “Admittedly, I was a bit taken aback by this sentence,” said Reverend Robin James, priest at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in New Paltz. “And yet I believe it to be completely appropriate that our bishops call us to do more than prayer. There’s an aspect of prayer that is essential to who we are as Christians, but that’s not the only thing. And our bishops said it’s not enough.”
At the same time, pastor Tobias Anderson of Redeemer Lutheran Church was reaching out to fellow clergy in town about coming together in a unified way to remember the victims in Orlando. “It’s about building bridges,” he said. “We all have to find a way to come together.”
The result was an ecumenical vigil for peace and healing held Wednesday evening, July 13. Nearly 50 people took part in the effort organized through the cooperation of five congregations in New Paltz that are each publicly welcoming to the LGBTQ community. Represented were Redeemer Lutheran Church, Reformed Church of New Paltz, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, New Paltz United Methodist Church and New Paltz Religious Society of Friends/Quakers. And while the initial intent stemmed from the targeting of the LGBTQ community, the violence directed at law enforcement in Dallas and individuals in Baton Rouge and Minnesota redirected the purpose of the event to honoring all victims of violence.
The vigil began outside St. Andrew’s with music and prayer. Many ages and ethnicities were represented. Small rainbow flags were distributed and a number of people wore multi-hued scarves. One woman’s t-shirt read simply, “Room for All.”
Pastors Mark Mast from the Reformed Church and Bette Sohm from United Methodist Church joined Robin James from St. Andrew’s and Tobias Anderson from Redeemer Lutheran. Each spoke briefly about love and acceptance, and parishioners stepped forward to offer readings that included “On Why We Forgive” by Desmond Tutu and a statement by Bishop Elizabeth Eaton issued after Orlando.
Readings and prayers were interspersed with songs. Pastor Anderson accompanied the assembled on guitar as the group sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and “Amazing Grace” as well as a lovely original composition by Anderson titled, “I’m Dreaming of a World.” He said afterward he was very touched by how many people showed up early to the vigil to rehearse the songs, and their voices were indeed very sweet raised against the sounds of traffic going by on Main St.
At the midpoint of the vigil, the songs and prayer gave way to silence for the brief walk down Main Street to New Paltz United Methodist Church. More song and prayers were offered there outside the building before another silent walk back up the street to St. Andrew’s, where the vigil ended in brief worship and a congenial meeting over refreshments.
Asked afterward about the bishops’ statement that “prayer alone is not enough,” Reverend James said she took the letter as a call to action. “I felt very strongly that this was our call to come out of the building and engage our community in whatever way we can. To step outside the safety of our places of worship, and to open our doors.” She gestured toward the literally open doors of St. Andrew’s Church behind her. “Which is why they are propped open now and the building is available to people. We want to take that message of love and peace and justice out the doors. People sitting inside are already aware of the message; that’s why they’re in church on Sunday. But we need to come out of the doors and share that message of loving one another.”
Margaret Howe was one of the participants in the vigil who did a reading. She’s a member of New Paltz United Methodist Church and a certified lay speaker. When asked what she thinks people can do to prevent the targeting of the LGBTQ community, she responded, “Exactly what we just did tonight. We need to be vocal; we need to be out there with our ribbons.”
Howe added that United Methodist in New Paltz has been actively supportive of the LGBTQ community for a long time but officially became a “reconciling church” last December. The designation was created as a way for any Methodist congregation to go on the record that they publicly support the LGBTQ community and welcome them to full participation in the life of the church. “We here in New Paltz are a church open to all,” Howe said. “We’ve always considered ourselves an open church but it’s now official. We are a safe place and the community knows we are a safe place.”