SAN BERNARDINO — Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral was dark as the men and women of different faiths walked down the center aisle of the mission-revival-style church. The names of the 14 victims of the Dec. 2 shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino were read by an unseen woman, with an equal number of six-inch white candles lit on a table before the altar. And the haunting high voice of a soloist sang the civil rights theme “We Shall Overcome.”
On this Monday, Dec. 7, evening, more than 400 gathered in the Diocese of San Bernardino’s mother church. They came to pray for the slaughtered and 21 injured in what President Barack Obama has called a terrorist attack in this city, some 65 miles east of Los Angeles along Route 66. A place that still considers itself a small town now confronting an unimaginable evil.
After welcoming the interfaith congregation to his church, Bishop Gerald Barnes said he and his fellow religious leaders were here to “walk with” the families and friends of the victims in their pain, anger, sorrow and confusion.
“We know that we cannot go back to the way things were before this horrible tragedy occurred,” he said in English and Spanish. “We can’t forget. We have to be brave as we seek healing and strength.”
Bishop Barnes stressed that “we do not want our enemies to win over our hearts, to terrify our future. We do not want our hearts to turn against any person, any race, any religion. And so I invite you this evening to be open to the Lord. Let your heart and your mind be open to God’s message for you, for our community and our families. Be open to where our God, a God of mercy and love, leads us.”
The bishop has asked all parishes to conduct a special penitential rite for the next two Sundays of Advent in response to the violent happenings in the San Bernardino Diocese.
At the prayer vigil, Bishop Barnes, who grew up in the Boyle Heights area of East Los Angeles, said “amen” would be repeated many times during the evening. “We will nod our heads and grieve with the words that are shared. But what comes after the amen? What will we do in God’s name and in prayer after we leave this church?” he asked. “Our ‘amen’ is our willingness to have God lead us on to guide our vision and our actions.”
He urged, “Let us find God calling us to be better neighbors, to be better at loving each other, to be committed workers for justice and peace, to be strong witnesses to God’s presence and God’s mercy in our home, our community and the world. Let our ‘amen’ be a call to merciful discipleship in the name of our Lord. Amen.”
Without missing a beat, “Amen,” came back from the pews.
The Reverend Norman Copeland said the service, which filled the cathedral, demonstrated the bedrock of love for those who suddenly had their lives ended at a holiday party. They ranged in age from 26-year-old Aurora Godov from San Jacinto to Isaac Amanios, 60, of Fontana. But Rev. Copeland said the truth was that everybody — not only in the cathedral, but across the Inland Empire — needed to heal, which only love could do.
“Hate breaks us,” he said. “The only cure we have that will allow our spirit and our souls and our minds to be able to move forward is to understand the principles of love. So I suggest to you, learn how to love — even in times like this.”
Imam Dr. Aslam Abdullah, representing the community’s Muslim community, said the killers — Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his wife Tashfeen Malik, 29 — wanted people from different faiths, like those present, to hate each other, to be disunited. But they failed because “we substitute love … we are united.”
“Every human life is precious,” Dr. Abdullah said in a rising voice. “And we should take care to defend that human life, even if we have to give our own life for somebody. We believe that. We believe that each one of us has a right to live the way God wants us to live. We believe that life must be protected. And as people belonging to different religions, we hold that. Life is precious.”
Rabbi Hillel Cohn from Congregation Emanu El in Redlands asked all public officials to come forward in front of the altar. He then led them and members of the congregation in a “Prayer for Our Government.”
“O source of life, waken your spirit within all inhabitants of our land, and plant among the people of different nationalities and faiths who dwell here, love and brotherhood, peace and friendship,” the words went near the end. “Uproot from our hearts and the hearts of all our brothers and sisters all hatred and enmity, all jealousy and vying for supremacy. Fulfill the yearning of all the people of land to speak and act proudly in its honor. Fulfill our mutual desire to see our country become a true light to all nations.”
Rabbi Jay Sherwood, also from Congregation Emanu El, noted how the prophet Isaiah told the Jewish people that “violence will not be heard in your land.” And he said the key was “heard,” because words usually come before acts of violence.
“When we let somebody speak against those who are different from us or whose religion is different from ours, we let the terrorists win,” said Rabbi Sherwood. “When we speak of closing our borders, rather than letting families fleeing violence to seek security, we let the terrorists win. When we allow our elected officials to do nothing about gun violence and hatred, we let the terrorists win. But we will overcome.”
Strengthened by diversity
Finally, the Rev. Dr. Sally Burton of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in San Bernardino and president of the San Bernardino Clergy Association, got up to speak. She outlined the three main goals of the interfaith groups — Inland Congregations United for Change, Inland Empire Concerned African American Churches, Diocese of San Bernardino, La Asociacion Musulmana Latina de America and Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement — who along with the clergy group sponsored the evening’s interfaith service.
The first aim was educational, to learn more about the beliefs and practices of other faiths. The second was social, to hold an annual festival to develop relationships of peace in the Inland Empire as well as remembering the victims of violence.
And the third was the most immediate, to take up a collection for the families of those killed and injured, which a bevy of impromptu ushers proceeded to do.
“We’ve been strengthened here tonight by our united effort and our diversity, by prayer and the source of our love of our creator,” she pointed out.
“Each one of us shares the image of God and the divine within us. We must shine that light as a lantern on sometimes a very dark road. Each and every one of us is needed for this calling. Go from this vigil tonight to be seeds of peace. Do not be afraid of what the evil people have done.
“Have confidence,” said Rev. Burton, “that love will offer goodness as a counterpoint to evil in the world.”