Shortly after 10 pm on the evening of October 1, 2017, chaos erupted among country music fans who'd gathered at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. Shots fired into the crowd by gunman Stephen Paddock eventually left 58 people dead and 851 more injured.
As these traumatized survivors returned to their various communities feeling physically and emotionally wounded, churches in those communities were left wondering how to best care for the significant spiritual and emotional needs created by the shooting. On the one-year anniversary of this tragic day, it's important that churches realize how crucial ongoing spiritual and emotional care remains to survivors' long-term healing.
In research studies we have conducted at Humanitarian Disaster Institute after three different mass shootings, we found that survivors who looked to their faith for strength and support experienced greater meaning and psychological resilience after the event. It's clear that churches have an important role to play in caring for survivors of mass shootings as they offer that essential support.
Here are three ways that churches can help meet survivors' psychological and spiritual needs in the wake of mass shootings, drawn from research that my colleagues and I presented in a symposium on religion/spirituality and mass shootings at the 2016 American Psychological Association Convention.
Don't Tell Survivors What to Believe, Think, or Feel
After a gunman opened fire and killed five police officers at a July 2016 protest against police shootings in Dallas, our team explored how people made meaning of this tragedy and coped with loss in light of their spiritual beliefs and views of God. According to University of North Texas researcher Laura Captari, who presented our team's findings at the APA symposium, "In the wake of a mass shooting it is common for people to experience anger and confusion toward God as they try to make sense of what happened."
Because of this, Christians who want to "help" are encouraged to assume a safe, caring posture of presence, and avoid offering judgment or instructions about what to believe, think, or feel.
"When responding to those impacted by the shooting," Captari says, "it is important to avoid telling people what to feel or think about God. Avoid theological debates and cliché Christian responses. Instead, just be there. Offer your presence. Cry with them. Take time to listen and validate their pain, confusion, anger, and inner turmoil. Their questions about God are real and important, but don't feel as if you must provide the 'right' answer. Instead, show them that God is safe, caring, and present—not judgmental or distant—by embodying that in your own safe and caring presence."
Connect People with Support Resources
The mental health impact of a shooting like the one in Las Vegas extends beyond the death toll and injury counts. One of the key findings we discovered after the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting—in which 49 people were killed—was that people living in geographic proximity to a disaster site also experienced increased distress.
Georgia State University researcher David Zelaya, who presented the paper on our Pulse shooting research in the mass shooting symposium at APA, adds, "We found that proximity to the tragedy played a role...People residing in Florida experienced more psychological distress than their counterparts residing in other states."
It's important, Zelaya says, that we help individuals close to the event—even if they are not directly impacted—get connected with support services in the wake of an attack as well as at anniversaries, during which distress may resurface. If you observe that an individual appears consumed by distressing thoughts and emotions that interfere with everyday life activities, additional support may be needed.
Practice Humility When Helping
Finally, our research after the Umpqua Community College mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon demonstrates the importance of humility as a posture that connects us more deeply when helping and responding to the needs of mass shooting survivors.
David Mosher, a University of North Texas researcher who spoke on how the findings of this research study can be applied to faith communities to provide psychological care in the wake of a mass shooting during the symposium, explains, "Humility toward others' backgrounds, experiences, and culture is more influential for reconciliation and healing than one's political or religious orientation." In other words, help offered after mass traumas like the Las Vegas shooting that considers survivors' cultural background and setting is more likely to succeed.
Mosher continues, "Cultural humility is needed in our increasingly fragmented society because it supersedes racial, theological, and political barriers to allow us to see and connect to others as fellow human beings who are all created by God." For example, instead of assuming you know the best way to help, pause and ask survivors what they need.
Together, these findings show that churches can be faithful to the challenge of caring for survivors of mass shootings as we offer our presence, assume a posture of humility, and connect survivors with the resources they need to flourish.