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Religion

Age-Old Question: Where Was God?

Southland religious leaders say the answer in times of tragedy, like the Colorado high school shootings, is rather: 'Where are God's people?'

April 24, 1999|ELAINE GALE and LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As the nation struggles to make sense of the shootings in Littleton, Colo., preachers across Southern California are trying to explain the unexplainable: How can such things happen in a world created by a loving God?

In sermons and one-on-one conversations, they differ over where to put the blame--guns, video games, the media, Satan or rock star Marilyn Manson. But many agree on one thing: they are worried about the morality of American youth.

"We are losing ground with this generation," said Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove. "We're giving them too much freedom without moral direction."

Siddiqi led a prayer in Friday services at the mosque for the families of the murdered children and for youth who are estranged from religion.

Pastor Bill Davenport of South County Baptist Church in San Clemente is planning an even more stark message in his Sunday sermon: the lack of godliness in public schools is one cause of the shooting, he believes.

"We've taken God and prayer out of the schools, and now you have satanic worship operating behind the scenes, unobstructed," said Davenport. "Those kids had no value for life because they haven't been taught about God."

Many children are not taught proper respect for human life, said Rabbi Bernard P. King of Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'Alot in Irvine.

"We dehumanize people so readily," said King, who addressed the topic in Shabbat services Friday night. "When we meet other human beings, think how differently we'd treat them if we viewed them as an image of God."

Reflecting views commonly offered in nonspiritual arenas, some clergy are using the pulpit to advocate gun control and air their frustration with violence caused by guns.

"As long as our culture condones and supports the marketing of firearms and the selling of violence to children in the form of movies, television and video games, then we all participate in it and we all should be held accountable," said Edward C. Martin, pastor of Shepherd of the Hills United Methodist Church in Mission Viejo.

"We tell each other, we tell ourselves, that we love our children, that we will do anything to keep them safe," Martin wrote in a sermon to be delivered Sunday. "But we lack the national will to stand up to those who hide behind outdated legalisms to protect their right to manufacture, sell and promote the use of firearms."

Davenport--a gun owner himself--disagrees. He said clamping down on guns will only increase their misuse.

"Criminals who really want them will get them," said Davenport, who bought his two rifles to protect his family. "Guns properly used are very good things, although people do need to be much more careful with them."

In addition to more religious education and tighter gun control, some argue for challenging the entertainment industry with boycotts and protests over violent movies, lyrics and television shows.

John Steward, senior pastor of Mount of Olives Lutheran Church in Mission Viejo, said his sermon Sunday will decry what he considers a practice of valuing freedom--for example, to buy guns--above religion and its values and morals.

"I don't think our Founding Fathers ever dreamed that people would be so irresponsible," Steward said. "When you send your child off to school, you expect them to come back alive."

Mark Howerton, pastor of student ministries at Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa, isn't waiting for Sunday to deliver his message. He met with rattled students this week at Costa Mesa High School and Newport Harbor High School to discuss their fears about death and questions about God.

He's working with schools to organize banners and cards to send to Littleton parents and students and will prod his young congregants to eschew violence and to extend tolerance and love to their peers.

Indeed, all those interviewed agree that the first priority is to try to meet the immediate emotional needs of those involved.

"The pastoral issue is very important, not to try to trump up some kind of answer but to be present in a compassionate way," said Father Austin Doran, pastor of Our Lady of Grace parish in Encino. "In the long run the Lord gives the light of understanding to people who have dealt with terrible tragedies, but we can offer compassion and care."

The day of the shootings at the Colorado high school, Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills had a previously scheduled appointment with a 13-year-old girl.

The youth was there for Bat Mitzvah training, but the subject quickly turned to the deaths.

"She said she was scared to go to school," said Geller, who was taken aback by the girl's alarm. After all, she was enrolled in a prestigious private school on the Westside, the last place one would expect children to fear for their lives.

Geller set aside the lesson plan and gently spoke with her student. Yes, the rabbi told her, it is true that things happen in the world that we cannot control. But everyone working together can make communities safer.

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