After Texas mass shooting, pastors say action must follow prayers

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As a reverend whose closest friend in the ministry is a Nashville pastor whose church lies 3 miles from where a shooter killed six at a private Christian school in March, Stephen Sanders absolutely believes in the importance of thoughts and prayers.

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“You have to give time for people to grieve,” said Sanders, lead pastor at Oak Hill United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas. “We have to care for people in response to a tragedy. But my faith tradition says that faith without works is dead. If all we do is pray to feel good about ourselves, I think we have a very trivial faith.”

Other Texas faith leaders agree. They say that while “thoughts and prayers” are an important and necessary response to tragedy, they should preface action – or risk being self-serving.

“We ought to pray as if it all depends on God,” said Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the 15,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, who was an evangelical adviser to former President Donald Trump. “But we have to work as if it all depends upon us.”

‘Faith and action are two sides of the same coin’

In the wake of all-too-common mass shootings, a predictable pattern unfolds: Amid calls for tighter gun restrictions, some GOP lawmakers face backlash for instead insisting the focus should be on “thoughts and prayers” for victims and their families.

The script played out once again last weekend after police said a gunman killed eight people and injured seven Saturday at the Allen Premium Outlets in Allen, a city about 25 miles north of Dallas. The mass shooting was the sixth in 2023 to occur in a public space, equaling the average number of such shootings nationally each year.

That evening, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, posted on Twitter that “Heidi and I are praying for the families of the victims” and said he had offered “whatever support is needed to do justice and help those in need.” State Rep. Keith Self, a Republican representing the congressional district that includes Allen, also tweeted a statement offering prayers.

When confronted in an interview later with the notion that many believed prayers were insufficient, Self responded: “Well, those are people that don’t believe in an almighty God who has, who is absolutely in control of our lives. I’m a Christian. I believe that he is.”

At St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Elgin, Texas, 40 miles east of downtown Austin, pastor Sam Brannon said thoughts and prayers “are important, and they work. If somebody goes through something tragic, having people reach out and encourage them, pray with them, hold then and tell them how much they’ve loved – all of that is incredibly important.”

But, he added, making clear that he was speaking for himself and not his congregation, “if all we do is say we’re sorry and we have the ability to change something to make tragedies happen less often, then we should probably be about doing that. Faith and action are two sides of the same coin.”

Pastors support gun ownership with ‘common-sense’ reform

As a former Navy gunner’s mate who has taught people how to safely use firearms, Brannon is a firm believer in the right to legal gun ownership. But he has seen the terror, misery and concern over mass shootings on his parishioners’ faces, he said, and he realizes many won’t speak freely about their feelings in a community where the topic is so politically fraught.

“I’m in full support of people being able to purchase and use firearms for a multitude of purposes, including personal safety,” Brannon said. “What I don’t think is a great idea is for everyone to have access to all firearms under all circumstances and just hope that everybody is trained effectively.”

The Texas pastors all said their church facilities beefed up armed security in the past few years. But they don’t begrudge lawmakers for bringing faith into the equation.

“We are whole human beings,” Sanders said. “To try to bifurcate my life and have one part focused on policy and another part focused on spirituality is not really possible. But if you’re using ‘thoughts and prayers’ as a way to escape addressing the underlying issues, then you’re treating your faith in a trivial way.”

Jeffress, of Dallas’ First Baptist, said he didn’t mind politicians stepping into the spiritual sphere “as long as they know what they’re talking about. Many politicians are ignorant about what the Bible actually says. God has entrusted government to protect its citizens, and the Bible teaches that God uses human effort to accomplish his will.”

When it comes to safety, prayer is a necessary first step, Jeffress said.

 “There’s nothing of importance we can do until we have prayed,” he said. “But, at the same time, we ought to enact common-sense gun reform that doesn’t violate the Second Amendment.”

Jeffress said he reminds congregants of a passage written by the apostle Paul in his second epistle to Timothy.

“He said, God has not given us a spirit of fear but of love, power and sound mind,” he said. “That doesn’t mean bad things aren’t going to happen, but it means God can work through the worst circumstances to accomplish his will.”

Faith leaders support prayers followed by action

Sanders is doing his part. In May 2022, when 19 students and two teachers were massacred at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Sanders said he noticed a peculiar thing: He felt nothing.

“These types of events had become so normal in our lives that I did not even react,” he said. “And when I realized that, that this had become normal, I knew I had to stand up and start speaking up.”

A longtime hunter who grew up hunting with his father and taught his children how to hunt, being a gun owner is part of who Sanders is. “But Uvalde awakened in me that I had to engage in the political process,” he said.

Earlier this year, Sanders testified in favor of a failed bill that would have prevented domestic abusers from obtaining firearms. But he was heartened by the surprising recent success of Texas House Bill 2744, which would raise to 21 the minimum age for purchasing certain assault-style rifles; a house committee this week advanced the bill with Republican support.

“One of the primary reasons to have government at all is to protect us from the worst parts of ourselves,” he said.

While prayer after mass shootings should be genuine, caring and mindful of the loss that families have suffered, Sanders said, it should move believers toward action – especially those who are political leaders.

Sanders said his faith teaches that sin is a reality, committed by imperfect humans who sometimes do horrible things to one another. So when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott cites mental illness as a root cause of the national plague of mass shootings, Sanders said, he is right – but it’s not the whole answer.

“If we recognize the reality of mental illness, then we have to address the reality of weapons and mass violence that are in the hands of people who are broken human beings.”

Sanders said his congregation, on the far west outskirts of Austin, includes NRA members who carry concealed weapons. Though he doesn’t typically bring up such issues from the pulpit, he did so last Sunday, speaking about the resolve shown last month by the family members of Uvalde victims who waited 13 hours to testify before the Legislature in support of HB 2744.

“My congregation was incredibly supportive of me sharing that,” he said. “I didn’t do it in a way that condemned gun owners, or that said here is the only possible solution. I just brought up how horrible it was. As people of faith, we cannot remain on the sidelines.”





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