Peace over violence: Community responds to Oregon shooting

by Onize Ohikere

More than 30 Moorhead community members filed out of First Presbyterian Church into the dark night, holding burning candles. As the group broke into choruses of  “This Little Light of Mine” and “When Peace Like a River,” the theme of the night hung clearly in the air.

“This is a candlelight vigil to pray against violence in all its forms,” said the church’s pastor, Rev. Elaine Sveet, as she mentioned issues of violence like sexual, domestic and gun violence among others, some of which plague the local community.

The vigil was a response to the Oregon shooting at Umpqua Community College on Oct. 1. A 26-year-old gunman, who eventually died in an exchange of gunfire with the police, opened fire in a classroom, leaving 10 dead and nine injured. Within the next week, more campus shootings were perpetrated in Texas and Arizona, bringing the total number of campus shootings within the year to 47.

“Violence in any form isn’t something people want to talk about,” said Puja Sharma, a 2012 MSUM graduate. “This opens room for conversations.”

The night included brief talk sessions from members of the community, including the Moorhead Chief of Police, a representative from the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center and religious groups. Organizers hoped to not only enlighten people, but to also call them to action. Sveet referred to the Bible verse Matthew 5:9, which talks about peacemakers.

“We hope it doesn’t mean to stay and watch and say, ‘That’s terrible,’” Sveet said about taking action against violence.

Moorhead Chief of Police David Ebinger also dwelt on the need for action from the community.

“We need your participation,” Ebinger said. “We cannot delude ourselves into thinking these are not issues in our own community.”

Recent cases of campus sexual assaults, robberies and ongoing domestic violence are representative of the violence existing in the local community.

Christopher Johnson of the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, who was also in attendance, said 60 percent of the people who come to the center are escaping domestic violence. He said the space opens its doors to roughly 3,000 people a year, 500 of whom are children.

“I look at my staff as champions,” Johnson said. “Sometimes they are the only thing standing between the victims and some very dangerous people.”

Johnson welcomed the people in attendance to act by volunteering with the center. Sharma decided she might do just that.

“I want to do something about [violence], and I hope other people would feel the same way,” she said.

As another form of action, Alexa Horwart from Isaiah, an organization for social change, encouraged the audience to call or write legislators and local newspapers and hold conversations about violence in their neighborhoods and homes.

Sveet explained she is working on promoting more open conversations about violence in the community, the vigil being the first step. She said the same group who put up the vigil is hosting an opportunity to talk about violence Nov. 1.   

Johnson sees these opportunities as a good starting point.

“I think these conversations are wonderful,” he said. “We’re at a point where you have to pick a side: Are you okay with [violence] or not?”

Horwart believes the conversations will go beyond helping the community to act.

“I, myself, am a survivor of sexual assault, and I think we need to hear from people who have survived violence,” she said. “I, myself, am choosing a side today. I’m ready to act.”

As the event concluded and speakers made recommendations to the listening audience, Rev. Mary Suomala Folkerds of Good Shepherd Lutheran ended her speech with a prayer, summing up the night’s purpose: “To be those who hold a light, so others can see.”

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