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Why we pray after mass shootings

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Maya Sugarman, SCPR

Shortly after Wednesday’s shooting, members of the San Bernardino community huddled in prayer. Then came the prayer shaming.

In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday's violence in San Bernardino, bystanders witnessed an uncommon display of overt spirituality.

Outside of the Inland Regional Center, several members of the community gathered in prayer amid the chaos.

Southern California Public Radio’s Maya Sugarman was there and caught one gathering on video.

Prayer in the wake of tragedy is not new in this country, but the backlash online this time has been swift. Several Twitter users criticized politicians calling for prayer.

Why does the country continue to pray after mass shootings, and what role does faith play when trying to make sense in a turbulent time?

Why we pray

Brie Loskota is the managing director at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC. She says people turn to religion in times of tragedy because it provides four essential things: community, rituals of hope, moments of personal transcendence and deeper purpose.

"Prayer is a ritualized way in which people are able to bring those four elements of religion together and really shape meaning and create community when things feel out of control," Loskota says.

The role of prayer

Rev. Sandy Tice is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in San Bernardino, located just minutes from the site of the shooting. She says the point of prayer is often misunderstood.

“Prayer does not make things stop,” she says. “I don’t think we pray believing that suddenly the world will be cheery and perfect. Prayer — in my view — is an act of defiance in a situation like this. It’s a way of saying ‘no.’ Look, prayer doesn’t stop things like this. Neither do our best-laid plans as governments and law enforcement officials. There is a lot of darkness and I’m not sure I know a way to stop it, but I refuse to stop praying and longing for the light.”

Prayer is not magic

Loskota says she understands why people get upset with those who suggest prayer, but do little else. 

“If you’re praying that I am fed, yet you have the ability to feed me, then your prayer would seem hollow to me,” Loskota says. “The words in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, ‘I was hungry and you fed me,’ not ‘I was hungry and you prayed for me.’ There’s an impulse that is supposed to compel people to action — that they are empowered through their sense of prayer and clarity that comes with it — to do good things in the world and transform the world,” Loskota says.

Loskota adds that prayer isn’t a “get out of action free card.”

“Religion is not treating prayer as magic … humans still have obligations to transform the world,” Loskota says.

Healing a community

When leading her congregation this Sunday, Rev. Tice says she plans to address head on the evil that befell the community.

“In our tradition, Advent is a season of longing for peace on earth, among other things,” Tice says. “And we proclaim that God actually dwells in the world as it actually is, not as we wish it would be. We will read texts like ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it,’ and we will sing together … Words of Desmond Tutu set to music by John Bell, ‘goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.’ That’s what we will hold onto on Sunday I think.”

Press the blue play button above to hear the full conversation.

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