Aurora faithful see light in dark days

“People are needing to grieve as a community,” said Debbie Stafford, a pastor at Living Water Christian Center and a former state Representative.

BY SARA CASTELLANOS, Staff Writer

AURORA | Nine days after a gunman stormed into a movie theater hellbent on murder, Pierce O’Farrill took to the stage of his Aurora church, his bullet wounds still healing, to speak about forgiveness.

O’Farrill, who was shot in the leg and arm during the July 20 theater massacre, said he felt compelled to tell people that harboring hatred isn’t the answer.

Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church

Congregation members gather before church service Sunday morning, July 29 at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church. Congregation members joined together to pray for the victims and families of the Aurora shooting. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church

Church goers race to service Sunday morning, July 29 at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church. Congregation members joined together to pray for the victims and families of the Aurora shooting. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church

Pastor Reid Hettich greets congregation members Sunday morning, July 29 at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church. Congregation members joined together to pray for the victims and families of the Aurora shooting. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church

A Bible lays under a chair Sunday morning, July 29 at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church. Congregation members joined together to pray for the victims and families of the Aurora shooting. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church

A couple holds each other close Sunday morning, July 29 at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church. Congregation members joined together to pray for the victims and families of the Aurora shooting. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church

A couple holds hands during service Sunday morning, July 29 at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church. Congregation members joined together to pray for the victims and families of the Aurora shooting. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church

Emily Allison prays during service Sunday morning, July 29 at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church. Congregation members joined together to pray for the victims and families of the Aurora shooting. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church

Congregation members sings praise during service Sunday morning, July 29 at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church. Congregation members joined together to pray for the victims and families of the Aurora shooting. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church

Pastor Reid Hettich preaches about the Aurora shooting Sunday morning, July 29 at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church. Congregation members joined together to pray for the victims and families of the Aurora shooting. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church

Congregation members support one another as Pastor Reid Hettich preaches about the Aurora massacre during service Sunday morning, July 29 at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church. Congregation members joined together to pray for the victims and families of the Aurora shooting. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church

Congregration members pray during service Sunday morning, July 29 at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church. Congregation members joined together to pray for the victims and families of the Aurora shooting. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

“Forgiveness is really more for the victim than the attacker,” he said in an interview with the Aurora Sentinel on July 31. “Forgiveness sets you free. I’m blessed to not know that anger and that hatred in my heart.”

Like many people whose lives were affected by the July 20 theater shootings, O’Farrill turned to his church for comfort and to mourn alongside those searching for answers from God.

“People are needing to grieve as a community,” said Debbie Stafford, a pastor at Living Water Christian Center and a former state Representative.

Reid Hettich, a pastor at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church in Centennial, said the community is still reeling from the events of July 20.

“There certainly is a greater sense of spiritual need, and the need of just being around people,” Hettich said.

He said many parishioners in the wake of the shootings are left with dozens of questions, and not much in the way of answers.

“Certainly there are some people wondering how God can allow things like this to happen,” said Hettich. “Those are questions that have been around forever. It’s normal and natural to wonder and doubt and to sort through that, but they have to do that honestly and prayerfully with other people.”

Stafford said she tells churchgoers that humans have free will, and God isn’t the one to blame.

“I think God cries with us, I think he’s merciful toward those that are in suffering and pain,” she said.

In his sermon on July 29, Hettich told his congregation that it’s important to acknowledge that there are horrors in our society, but it’s equally important to understand that no one has answers as to why they happen.

That’s all the more reason to band together as a community and heal, he said.

“The quick, easy answers elude us,” he told the congregation. “It seems the best we can do is seek and pursue the God who loves us.”

Wyatt Cole, a parishioner at Cherry Creek Wesleyan Church, said he felt especially thankful to be at church July 29, in the wake of the theater massacre that left 12 people dead and 58 wounded.

“With all the events and everything that’s kind of transpired in the last week, I feel like you come to church and it’s kind of for restrengthening, trying to make sense out of a senseless act,” he said.

In spite of the horrific incident, Cole is still confident that God has a plan, but he understands those who may be doubting their beliefs.

“I think if you just blindly follow any kind of theology, I don’t know that that’s the right answer,” he said. “I feel that God gives us doubt and the free will to choose what we believe, and what we choose to follow.”

Conversations about where God was on the night of July 20 are rampant on social media platforms. CNN posed the question July 24 to Twitter followers. One response was from Pastor Riley Fraas, of Hope Congregational Church in Bethune, Colo., who wrote, “In short, God was in complete control, exercising his will.”

Statements like that irk atheist Terry Lawson, a Littleton resident who was a student at Columbine High School during the 1999 mass shootings.

He said it’s “ridiculous” to believe that the theater shootings were part of some bigger plan that God mapped out.

“The victims were not chosen, nor or are they special. They just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said in an email.

Many religious community members tend to focus less on the shooting itself and more on the miracles that came from it.

O’Farrill said there’s comfort to be found in knowing that the gunman didn’t kill more people, and that there were so many heroic acts of goodness in the midst of the chaos.

“The miracles are everywhere,” he said.

At O’Farrill’s church July 29, he recounted his experience in the movie theater to a crowd of more than 700 people.

He remembers trying to escape, but being unable to walk. He said he was lying face-down in agonizing pain only a few inches away from the shooter’s boot. He wasn’t afraid of the assailant, or even afraid of dying, he said.

“My fear came from thinking about my brother and my dad and friends and all my family I would leave behind, and my greatest fear was that they would blame God for this,” he said.

Ultimately, his message to the congregation was one of hope.

“The truth is that everyone in this world can agree there is darkness,” he said. “There’s a dark force that pulls against all of us, but through this tragedy we’re seeing there is a light, there is hope in this world.”

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or sara@aurorasentinel.com. 

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