In a Community Turned Upside Down by Tragedy, ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Are Everything

Jonathan Lopez prays as people gather to pay their respects at a memorial four days after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, August 7, 2019. (Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters)
The heavily Catholic community of El Paso processes the unfathomable through a shared faith.

After the shootings in El Paso and Dayton that shook the nation, leaders across the board were grasping for the right words of response. In the wake of a tragic event with political reverberations, Americans had their ears to the ground, waiting to hear what our elected leaders would say.

In the immediate aftermath, none of the responses were too reassuring: Teleprompter Trump offered his condolences in a mechanical fashion to the wrong city, Democrats decried Trumpian rhetoric as the cause of the tragedy, and most Republicans adhered to a minimalist approach of personal condolences. As could be expected, GOP politicians who offered their “thoughts and prayers” to those affected by the shootings were swiftly harangued by the media, politicians, and television hosts for hiding behind religious sentiments in order to avoid conversations about gun control.

Over at the Huffpost, political writer David Moye described “thoughts and prayers” as “that time-honored solution of pretending to do something without actually doing anything.” Democratic senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio tweeted: “Thoughts and prayers are not enough. We must act.” In an interview with CNN, Senator Cory Booker, a religious man himself, strongly asserted that “we are not going to give thoughts and prayers, which to me is just bulls***.” The mantra even appeared on late-night television, when TV host Jimmy Kimmel commented that “our leaders, in one party in particular, are offering not much more than their thoughts and their prayers.”

Whether or not the “thoughts and prayers” offered by Republicans were sincere is irrelevant — this was not a question of condolences; this was a political battlefield. However, for the actual communities forced to process unfathomable tragedy, “thoughts and prayers” cannot be tossed aside (although our political leaders are not best-equipped to offer them). In stark contrast to politicians tweeting out their intentions or calls to action, the religious communities of the places impacted are the real forces working to mend that which has been torn asunder by unspeakable violence.

In El Paso, a community that, along with its Mexican neighbors, lost 22 of its fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters in one harrowing morning, faith has meant everything in the face of undiluted evil. As a heavily religious community, the people of El Paso turned to prayer where politics were not enough.

The city of El Paso is itself strengthened and united by a shared religious heritage. Longer than America has been a nation, El Paso has been home to a thriving Hispanic Catholic community.

At the turn of the 17th century, Spanish settlers came into the El Paso region, claiming the fertile land along the northern shores of the Rio Grande for the Spanish monarch — an event that marked the birthplace of Spanish settlement in the American Southwest. The Spanish history of the region makes the shooter’s racist motivations all the more incomprehensible: Modern-day Texas was a Spanish-influenced region long before it was ever “white.”

When Spanish settlers moved in, Catholic missionaries were not far behind. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Franciscans founded missions throughout the area. Many of the missions of El Paso have served their original purpose as religious and social centers continuously since their founding, making them some of the oldest settlements in the United States.

Today’s Roman Catholic Diocese of El Paso was established in 1914 and includes 10 counties in far West Texas, covering 26,686 square miles. According to its website, the Catholic population served by the diocese is 656,035 (of 858,546 residents of the region). The city of El Paso itself, while rooted in its Hispanic Catholic tradition, is home to a kaleidoscopic array of religious groups, as well as people who are not affiliated with any particular tradition.

Several years ago, the threads of different faiths found in El Paso inspired local religious leaders to come together to form the InterFaith Alliance (IFA) of El Paso & Southern New Mexico. Founded by two Catholic priests, Monsignor Arturo Bañuelas and Father Jose Morales, and a Protestant pastor, the Reverend Deborah Clugy-Soto of the United Church of Christ, the IFA is a coalition of 30 or so religious leaders, which includes in its ranks a Jewish rabbi, a Zen community leader, and the president of a Hindu temple. The mission of the IFA is the furthering of interfaith dialogue among various faiths in the region, doing so in part by organizing interfaith prayer services and activities in the El Paso area — a facet of the group that would prove crucial in the wake of calamity.

As the news of the shootings rocked the city, the leaders of the IFA headed swiftly to the front lines to assist in whatever way they could. Clugy-Soto, the chairwoman of the IFA and pastor of Revolution United Church of Christ, discussed the immediate aftermath of that fateful Saturday morning: “We went to hospitals, to try and figure out what was happening. A lot of clergy here in El Paso were trying to do whatever we could and help however we could.”

Bañuelas, pastor at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in El Paso, was also a first responder after the shooting took place: “As soon as I got the call that there was a shooter, I went to the hospital, but the hospitals were on lockdown. So I went to the reunification centers where families were waiting to hear whether their loved ones were alive. . . . You can imagine the pain, the nightmare.”

Besides comforting and praying with families, the leaders of the IFA knew that a community-wide response was necessary. The IFA hoped to create a space of solidarity for the people of El Paso to process and mourn together the terror that took place. As in line with its mission, the IFA organized an interfaith vigil to happen the Sunday evening after the shooting. Thousands of El Pasoans were in attendance at the outdoor park; hundreds of candles and phone flashlights created a sea of lights amid the mourning crowd.

Clugy-Soto was at the front helping lead the service. The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, Mark J. Seitz, gave a prayer, as did leaders from Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist communities. All gathered sang “Amazing Grace,” with the help of an assortment of choirs. The elected leaders of the city gave ministerial remarks, leaving politics aside for the sake of all gathered.

In organizing the vigil, the IFA wanted “to create a space where people could come together, be united, cry those tears, and begin the healing process,” Clugy-Soto said. The IFA wanted the vigil to be a spiritual place, somewhere apolitical where those in shock and mourning could stand in solidarity with their familial community, where they could begin to process the recent events in prayer. Those involved in organizing the event understood that the service ought to be reserved for prayer, not politics. Bañuelas said of the vigil: “We weren’t promoting any political agenda, not at this time. . . . The message of the service was about coming together in solidarity with the families who were grieving.”

The vigil has received much media coverage due to the presence of Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman and current Democratic presidential candidate, who is himself from El Paso. According to Clugy-Soto, the original plan was to leave Beto — and politics in general — out of the order of the night. But, as he is an El Pasoan and fellow community member, they couldn’t quite bar him from the event. A compromise was concocted: After the prayer service officially ended, they would open up the stage for anyone to come up and share their thoughts. For Clugy-Soto, “Beto was more political than we wanted the tone of the thing, but he did speak to the grief, too. . . . Beto could have gotten much more political about it, but he did control himself.”

As the service came to a close, many in the crowd started chanting “Beto, Beto, Beto,” wanting to hear from their hometown hero, but not everyone was so inclined. Clugy-Soto observed an El Pasoan approach a priest at the vigil and plead, “Father, we don’t want to hear Beto!” For many El Pasoans trying to come to terms with the mass shooting, political messaging did not speak to the depths of grief and shock reverberating through their hearts and minds.

For Clugy-Soto, the purpose of the vigil, and more widely of the clergy, was to convey a message of hope, to detect some light amid the darkness — like the candles in the crowd. “People want some sense that there is hope amongst all of this, that this isn’t something God wills.” For Bañuelas, religious leaders play a crucial role in fostering solidarity in the face of destruction. “It’s this coming together, and the churches are bringing people together. Together we can overcome this terrible pain we have endured by this assassin, and together we can rise above it.”

Although the IFA vigil was over in one evening, the spirit of the vigil has carried on. Clugy-Soto described El Paso as “a very spiritual place — almost every night there is some group that has been having a vigil.” Bañuelas has noticed that the pews of his church have been filled more fully than ever before: “Every day, there have been people coming into the chapel to pray, especially the youth.”

This desire to gather with heads bowed has extended past El Paso’s religious communities. As Bañuelas observed, “Even people who are not particularly associated with any religion are linking with people who are religious. . . . They feel a certain connection and importance to hold onto something significant.”

The heart of this communal worship is centered at the site of the shootings — the Walmart parking lot. Bañuelas has been ministering there daily: “The parking lot has turned into a public worship service — for people of all religions, all faiths, even those who don’t associate with any religion.” The hot asphalt has become sacred ground — the space itself has become known simply as “the shrine.” Overflowing with religious icons — wooden crosses, icons of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a family of prayer candles, statuettes of the Virgin Mary, and bouquets of flowers — the Walmart parking lot has become a reverent place for citizens to grieve, to pray, to come together, to sing, to dance, and to heal.

Many were on hand to say prayers for others, and the faithful formed prayer circles with rosaries in hand, reciting the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy. Included among those gathered were mariachi bands and matachin dancers. Bañuelas noted, “For us, fiestas are like a liturgy. We have a saying: ‘As long as you can sing and dance, the devil hasn’t won.’”

Bañuelas has “been there almost every day, and it’s really hard every time. . . . I hear a lot of people tell me, if it was not for my faith, I wouldn’t be able to get through this.”

Although the spiritual community of El Paso turned its eyes toward hope and solidarity, this does not mean the wickedness of the shootings has been forgotten or ignored. Clurgy-Soto and Bañuelas both understand that a crucial part of their role as spiritual leaders is to denounce evil, including the evil made manifest in the shooting and the wicked motives behind the act. In the face of such evil, there is an innate call to action. Bañuelas powerfully asserted that “the blood of the people who died is calling us to look into our own hearts to get rid of all racism, fear, and xenophobia.”

Unlike the general response of political leaders, the words of the clergy can grapple with the full spectrum of human experience when faced with such incomprehensible loss of innocent life. Bishop Seitz released a statement on the shootings that speaks to the horror of the shooting more truthfully than a politician’s Twitter account ever could.

Once again in our nation we see the face of evil. We see the effects of a mind possessed by hatred. We see the effects of the sinful and insipid conviction that some of us are better than others of us because of race, religion, language or nationality. . . . The great sickness of our time is that we have forgotten how to be compassionate, generous and humane. Everything is competition. Everything is greed. Everything is cold.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops echoed the insights of Bishop Seitz, as it issued its own statement in response to the El Paso shooting:

Something remains fundamentally evil in our society when locations where people congregate to engage in the everyday activities of life can, without warning, become scenes of violence and contempt for human life. . . .

Things must change. Once again, we call for effective legislation that addresses why these unimaginable and repeated occurrences of murderous gun violence continue to take place in our communities. As people of faith, we continue to pray for all the victims, and for healing in all these stricken communities. But action is also needed to end these abhorrent acts.

When it comes to gun control, it is a question of effectiveness and constitutionality. If there is legislation that can be passed to minimize gun violence that is both effective and constitutional, I pray it godspeed. However, when it comes to consoling and ministering to a community stricken by tragedy, it is a question of the soul. Although better suited to a neighborhood vigil than a Republican’s Twitter feed, “thoughts and prayers” really do mean everything to a community in mourning. Where politicians cannot enter, leave it to the clergy.

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