Houses Of Worship Offer Havens For Some In Aurora

As the community of Aurora, Colo., begins to process the senseless killing of so many young people, residents have been turning to their religious leaders for guidance and comfort. Guest host Linda Wertheimer talks to Denver Baptist minister Mitch Hamilton about the response in the religious community.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

As the Colorado community of Aurora confronts what happened early on Friday morning, and tries to come to terms with their friends and neighbors dying in a movie theater, one obvious place to turn is to religious leaders. Hundreds of people have attended vigils held by Aurora's religious leaders. And today, many of those congregations are on their way to church. Mitch Hamilton is a pastor at Mississippi Avenue Baptist Church in Aurora, Colorado. Brother Hamilton, thank you for doing this.

BROTHER MITCH HAMILTON: Well, thank you for giving us the opportunity.

WERTHEIMER: I wonder if this terrible thing has touched your church directly.

HAMILTON: We've been very fortunate that we have not had anyone in our church who was either - who either lost their life, or were injured in the gunfire in any significant way. We had a number of our members who were in the facility at the time, and some who were slightly injured as a result of the events. But everyone is OK. Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: So what questions are you hearing from the people that you serve?

HAMILTON: Probably the biggest question we hear is the question of why. It's a very difficult question because it is always laden with so much emotion. And we recognize that it's one of those questions that probably does not have any answers. It certainly doesn't have any answers today. More than anything, though, we ask the question which really, is the what question: What is God doing now, and what should we be doing now?

WERTHEIMER: I wonder if you feel a special responsibility to reach out to young people. I mean, it seems to me that - exactly what you were just saying; that people ask why such a thing would happen. It seems to me that kids could either be drawn to faith, or reject faith, after something like the killing in Aurora.

HAMILTON: Well, our observation has been that people are not - do not necessarily reject faith, but it brings them a deeper level of questioning about their faith. And so during these past few days, and coming up even into today, we have had a continual correspondence with young adults - and older adults as well - about, what does this mean in their faith, and how does it fit within their faith? And so in some respects, it's drawing people much deeper rather than pushing them away.

WERTHEIMER: How are you communicating with your flock?

HAMILTON: We have corresponded personally, in every case where we possibly can. But we're discovering that many of the questions are coming via social media. And so we have a team who has worked directly, who are responding via either Facebook or Twitter or our webpage - emails, those sorts of things. And the response has been pretty good.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you have a sermon to deliver today, and I would think this is as difficult a sermon as a pastor has ever had to deliver. Have you been - I assume you've been giving it a lot of thought. What is your thinking?

HAMILTON: Well, most certainly, this is one of those challenging times in the life of a church; and a life of a people, and a community. But one of the things that makes this not difficult - but in some respects, makes it a bit easier - is that we're in a community that's searching for an answer that contains hope. And if there's anything that is found within the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it is hope. And so we're able to share with people that there is a God who loves them; there's a God who is with them; and there's a God who will walk with them through these days. The ability to bring a message of hope to our people, and to the community, makes it a little bit easier.

WERTHEIMER: Mitch Hamilton is pastor at the Mississippi Avenue Baptist Church in Aurora, Colorado. Mr. Hamilton, thank you.

HAMILTON: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: At Temple Emanuel in Denver, Rabbi Joe Black has already preached his sermon. He spoke to a packed sanctuary on Friday evening - that was the evening after the shooting took place very early on Friday morning. Rabbi Black, was there something different about the people who came out on Friday night?

RABBI JOE BLACK: I think there was. First of all, in the summer - you know, it's sort of a time when people usually don't come en masse to services. And our sanctuary was filled. And also, there were a lot of young people with their parents there, which you don't usually see in the summertime.

WERTHEIMER: What did you talk about on Friday?

BLACK: I said if there's anything that we can take from this, it's the ability to ask, why does someone have access to guns? And I spoke about what I felt was the need to rethink the easy access to weapons of mass destruction, that's so prevalent in our society.

WERTHEIMER: So kind of a big-pressure thing, to think that you're going to stand up there on the bimah; and give an important message, on an important day like Friday. How do you think you did?

BLACK: Um, I don't know. I think people - people thanked me for what I said. And I'm not sure it's as much as the actual words that were said, that were important. People - they want answers. But I think more than wanting answers, they want to know that they're not alone. And that's the function of religion, too. That's what Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us - the rabbi. Man is not alone. We come together. We help each other. We help one another. And we help those who are in need. And that's what I felt.

WERTHEIMER: Rabbi Joe Black of Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. Rabbi, thank you so much.

BLACK: My pleasure. My honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to NPR News.

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