Today marks three weeks since the mass shooting in El Paso, TX, where twenty-two innocent lives were taken at a Walmart store and dozens more wounded.
In the days since the shooting, prayer vigils, gatherings, rallies, events, fundraisers, and, most importantly, funerals have all taken place as the dead have now been laid to rest. Victims’ families continue to mourn their losses, and the entire city simultaneously grapples with a commitment to remember and a will to move on.
The community’s wounds are still fresh, but there’s a sense that we need to carry on with our lives, lest we fall victim to the perpetrator’s intent to instill fear and fundamentally alter that basic tenant of humanity. No, that will not be the case. Life will go on. And love will go on. As heard many times in Gospel proclamations, homilies, and speeches, it is love and only love that can overcome such hatred. Defiant, intentional love in the face of evil. In love, we encounter God’s grace to lead us through this dark valley.
A new bond now permeates life here in El Paso, even if never spoken or overtly acknowledged: In being collectively violated and made vulnerable through this person’s act of hate, there has also been a universal exposing our true selves, the inner self in all of us that simply wants peace and harmony. All other pretense has been stripped away. The “what if” factor each of us feels has forced us to come to grips with what really matters. (My new mantra: “Hug those closest to you profoundly and profusely”!) And as if this community weren’t already close enough by virtue of its familial underpinning, this vulnerability has just further cemented a spirit of kinship among complete strangers. It’s like the Body of Christ is actually recognizable out on the streets!
The open wounds start to heal, at least a little. The community is returning to regular life, and there’s moments when all seems “back to normal” — those undefined, mundane, semi-hazed flashes —walking in a parking lot, shopping for groceries, unloading a shopping cart— where the routine and rote-playing of daily motions are as if nothing remarkable had ever taken place here. But then the memory hits. The brain resets and you instantly bring it all back into focus. Something is different and will always be different going forward. The road to healing will be a long and winding one, for sure.
As life sputters and struggles to return to a sense of normalcy for the majority of us in El Paso, lingering concern remains for the forty-six families who were thrust into the middle of this tragedy because of complete happenstance the morning of August 3: twenty-two families who’ve had to bury loved ones, stripped of their earthly lives in a blazing instant at the hands of hatred and fear; another twenty-four families whose loved ones are forced to cope with the permanent effects of bullets that pierced their bodies.
Prayer Transcending Borders and Time
Particularly heartbreaking is the fact that twenty-two funerals have since taken place. The aftermath and its liturgical implications were extraordinary. In just ten days, all victims were laid to rest in masses or services held in El Paso and in Ciudad Juarez. Recall that several of the victims were from Mexico, their bodies returned to their families in Mexico for burial there. One of the “Mexicans” was actually a German native, retired from the German Air Force after serving at Fort Bliss U.S. Army Base and residing in Juarez with his Mexican wife. In virtually every case, families of the victims spanned either side of the border, and certainly the community’s outpouring from either side was not impeded by any wall or physical barrier.
Because of the number of funerals held all within a relatively short span and in different locations around the region, the individual liturgies formed part of an aggregate communal prayer. In the same way the Paschal Triduum constitutes a single liturgy across three days, these funerals were like a unified, multi-part celebration commending these twenty-two souls to heaven. It was an extended litany of new life, with precisely twenty-two invocations. At any given funeral mass, there was a sense of something more than just the liturgy at hand — you were actually taking part in a days-long, multi-movement symphony of redemption and reception into paradise.
“Ministerial First Responders”
In all, I assisted with five of the funeral masses, planning, playing and leading the music. Like many El Pasoans, I had been wanting to make a meaningful contribution to honor the lives of the victims and somehow assist the surviving families. I invited members of my diocesan choir to join me in this effort. I was overwhelmed by the impassioned and immediate response by so many. Choir members dropped everything to be part of not one, but four(!) different liturgies in one week — all at different locations and some even back-to-back on the same day.
Together, we became “ministerial first-responders” to the tragedy, assisting in the best way we knew how: through our ministry of music, liturgy and sung prayer. Though a miniscule contribution in the scheme of things, this was our way of applying a spiritual triage, treating the immediate needs of the suffering, tending to their earthly souls while at the same time commending the souls of the deceased to the divine. What a humbling privilege.
And, as it turns out, in giving of ourselves, it was also a way to tend to our own self-healing. God’s grace is indeed found in all things.
On Friday, August 9, we sang for Angelina “Angie” Englisbee, age 86, whose funeral was held at St. Pius X church. It was an uplifting celebration of Angie’s life. Family, friends, parishioners and city leaders packed the church, and along with the full choir and instruments sang her from this earth to heaven’s gates.
That same day was the funeral mass of Juan de Dios Velazquez, age 77, a naturalized U.S. citizen who had moved to El Paso to escape the violence of Juarez. It was a smaller, more intimate service, held at Our Lady of the Light church, a small parish in what’s known as the lower valley, close to the U.S.-Mexico border. There was a palpable grief among all those in the pews. Juan’s surviving wife, Nicolasa, also wounded in the attack, attended the funeral in a wheelchair, assisted by medical personnel and transported by ambulance. After the mass, which was entirely in Spanish, the pastor expressed his gratitude that we were there, because otherwise there would have been no music.
The following day, Saturday, August 10, the one-week anniversary of the massacre, our community laid to rest 15-year-old Javier Rodriguez, the youngest of the 22 killed. The bilingual funeral liturgy took place in the early morning at Corpus Christi church, which was filled to capacity. Going into this mass, we all had a sense that this would be a particularly emotional ordeal because of the age of the victim. Javier’s uncle, who was with him at the time of the shooting and himself was seriously wounded, was transported from the hospital to attend. During the mass, my daughter Chloe sang a solo reflection piece, “Deseo paz,” a plea for peace and end to senseless violence. It was a moving moment for all. Upon procession of Javier’s casket out of the church, the entire crowd waved white cloths above their heads in farewell to this beloved child of God.
On Wednesday, August 14, I played at the Spanish-language funeral mass for Gloria Irma Marquez, age 61, of Ciudad Juarez. Her mass was held at St. Patrick Cathedral, attended heavily by family and friends from across the border, many of whom wore white in Gloria’s honor. I assisted the small cathedral Spanish choir on organ and piano and together we led well-known songs in Spanish to which all raised their voices. I was struck by the simple serenity that permeated the entire celebration.
On Friday, August 16, the full diocesan choir sang for the funeral mass of 23-year-old Andre Anchondo, the young father who was killed, along with his wife Jordan, in the massacre. The recently married couple died protecting their two-month old son. A lot of media attention surrounded this particular story because of the heroics involved, the young age of the victims (both in their 20s), and the plight of their three children left behind. Bishop Mark Seitz presided the mass, offering a moving homily that comforted the grieving assembly and reminded all of Andre’s propensity for fun, laughter, and for “doing things big.” The choir, organ and trumpet led glorious music that lifted saddened hearts, compelling all to rise above our own grief so that we could in turn lift up Andre. “And I will raise you up, and I will raise you up on the last day” were the resounding words from Suzanne Toolan’s ever-timely hymn echoed by all.
Life Remembered, Life to Live
The week after the tragedy, I took my daughters to see the victims’ memorial at the Cielo Vista Walmart where the shooting took place. In the weeks since the shooting, a makeshift shrine has grown organically into a beautiful, sprawling wall of crosses, flowers, candles, hand-written messages, photos, crafts and artwork to form a kind of urban coral reef, expanding each day in tribute to the victims. It is truly a sight to behold, simultaneously a communal proclamation of unity and outpouring of care from within and abroad. Even amidst the hundreds of daily visitors and driveways and streets around the area now being reopened to traffic, the atmosphere at the site remains solemn. Complete strangers hug and console each other in what becomes a more distant, yet ever-present grief.
That day, standing before the twenty-two crosses, we said a prayer as a family for the victims.
And then, with sad but grateful hearts, and reminded that life must go on, we went shopping at our regular Walmart.
And so is it that we as the Body of Christ remember and honor those members who have been called to eternal life, just as we continue to live ours in joyful pursuit of the same heavenly reward.
Let the church sing Amen! ¡Que cantemos Amén!