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The Very Different Thing That Makes Aurora and Charleston the Same

Chris Hill
Rev. Dr. Chris Hill is senior pastor of The Potter's House of Denver.

On July 20, 2012, I was on a family vacation.

My wife and I had just come in from the opening-night midnight showing of the latest release in the popular Batman serial, "The Dark Knight Rises." My 17-year old son caught a ride back to the hotel with a car full of family members. He received the news first.

Near speechless, he knocked on my door and simply handed me his laptop. I stood in the doorway and watched the screen as it detailed a tragedy unfolding in my own backyard.

I was horrified because just four miles away from the doors of my church, and the door of our home, all hell had broken loose.

A 24 year old, Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience named James Egan Holmes, had walked into the back door of the Century Movie Theater in my Aurora, Colorado. Heavily armed, in moments he injured 70 innocent people and, of that staggering number, massacred 13 of them.

I was literally shaking with emotion. Had my family and I stayed home for vacation, we would have been in that same theatre, at that same time, on that night.

I grabbed my cell phone and called the airlines to get the next flight out — vacation was over.

I flew home to do what pastors do in these situations — organize and participate in prayer vigils, rally and staff-up our grief counselors, comb through my membership rolls to see if any of my congregation had been injured or killed, find out if any members lost loved ones in that theater shooting. Then, I kept my phone in my hand constantly waited for news updates. I walked the floors of our chapel and joined with mourners to pray away the darkness and fear that threatens to take over when something like this happens.

I flew home to preach sermons of hope to a people who felt like all hope was gone.

I flew home to galvanize our community and to try to help dispel the darkness and terror that falls on a city when the safe places are no longer safe. I have been alongside them for the past 3 years.

This call to introduce peace in chaos is quite challenging. With each mass shooting, it gets harder and harder to feel safe in America, no matter where you live.

Violence is no longer confined to the "inner city." We know, first hand, that it can creep into your quiet suburban mall and interrupt your favorite movie. It now comes to church.

It was June 17, 2015, and again I was on our annual summer vacation, my first real break since the Aurora shooting. Darkness struck again.

A pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal church in Denver, sent me a text message. He asked me to pray for him, saying that he was facing a "difficult" situation.

Having not yet heard the news, I pressed him for information. His following text seemed to bleed red across my screen.

"8 killed by gunman in South Carolina ... Emanuel AME Church," he wrote. "Pastor was killed." And then he wrote, "He was my friend."

A 21 year old, high-school dropout named Dylann Storm Roof walked into the front door of "Mother Emanuel" A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina and ultimately shot and killed, not eight people as the earlier text messages had reported, but Roof had killed nine.

Instantly I began to pray for the grieving family members and the pastors that would be hard pressed to comfort them. I prayed for churches in the community that would now be filled with people wondering if it was safe to gather there and worship.

I prayed for my friend in Denver and for pastors of all ethnicities across America that would have to grapple with the growing racial divide that is eroding the fabric of our national unity.

I prayed for the crisis counselors, and the Sunday School teachers who would have to make sense of this senseless killing for adults and children alike.

I prayed for eulogists who would have to stand over shiny new caskets and throw flowers on the remains of innocent people, gone far too soon.

I prayed with an insight that I had gained both grieving through and leading through the aftermath of the Aurora shooting.

Though the two shootings are very different in their details, they are very similar in their intent.

The Aurora shooter walked into a movie theatre and the Charleston shooter walked into a church. Both places are set aside in our society as places where one can escape.

The church offers a solace for the soul. The movies offer a sanctuary for the imagination. We feel safe to take our children and our elders to both places, believing that in moments of worship or entertainment, nothing really can go wrong.

The intent of these shooters was simple — they sought to terrorize us in our safe places. They bring their imagined battlefields to our places of community peace.

These cowards will not face us when our eyes are opened, or even in the light of day. They attack us only when our heads are bowed in fervent prayer or when we are sitting relaxed, in a darkened movie theater, lost in an exciting world of imaginary adventure.

These shooters are thieves coming to steal our sense of safety, to destroy our feeling of community, and to kill our public peace.

They deliberately attack us in public places because they hope to redefine our normal. They want us to live our lives overly wary of our neighbors and constantly on guard. They want to paint us all into dark corners of fear until we tremble at the idea of a public gathering, whether it be for entertainment or worship.

Undeterred by the innocence of children in the movie theatre or the sanctity of the open arms of the church, these shooters advanced on the defenseless. The details of the shootings are vastly different but their intent is the same — their ultimate target is our peace.

Every time we retreat and abandon the community gathering for fear of "what if," we let terror win, making these shooters victorious, even behind bars. They win when we choose to lead isolated and disconnected lives.

In Aurora, we had to decide to not allow the shooter to win. We had to decide to still take our children to the movies, and to the mall, and to church. We choose, daily, to take a stand against fear.

This is my word to Charleston — live your life fearlessly. This is how you will defeat this terrorist and disarm this killer of the beloved community.

Rev. Dr. Chris Hill is senior pastor of The Potter's House of Denver.

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