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‘Be the light’ urged after Jacksonville shootings

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) — Four deaths and 13 injuries from shootings at two sporting events this past weekend in Jacksonville, Fla., have leaders lamenting “a new normal” of violence amid calls to prayer that seemingly fade away.

Three were killed and 11 injured in a mass shooting at a high stakes video game tournament Sunday (Aug. 26) in downtown Jacksonville, following the killing of one and the injury of two others at a high security Friday night high school football game just seven miles away. The violence follows the Valentine’s Day 2018 massacre of 14 students and staff at a Parkland, Fla., high school that also injured 17.

Several Southern Baptist churches are hosting concurrent prayer gatherings Tuesday (Aug. 28) at 7:07 a.m. in and around Jacksonville. Themed Ask Seek Knock prayer gatherings (ASK), the time and theme are based on Matthew 7:7, Jacksonville Baptist Association lead missional strategist Rick Wheeler told Baptist Press. Jesus says in the Scripture, “Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you.”

School and community leaders are reviewing safety measures and conducting investigations, although the gunman at Sunday’s video game tournament is among the dead.

The host of one of the eight prayer gatherings scheduled to date, senior pastor David Tarkington of First Baptist Church in Orange Park, expressed his view in a blog post today.

“It is at times like this when community leaders, news agencies, and even those with no belief in God call for things to be done,” Tarkington wrote. “The word ‘pray’ becomes a hashtag that trends for a few days as many use social media to state we must #PrayForJacksonville.

“I believe that and am even sharing that statement, but the church of Jesus Christ must not fall into the trap of seeing prayer as a weak, viral response to tragedy,” Tarkington blogged. “… One Jacksonville city leader stated ‘We really need to talk about God. I’m asking the faith-based community to step up.’ I cannot disagree with that, but the church must understand that to ‘step up’ means we must first kneel before God together, seeking His face, His will, while confessing our sins of complacency and self-promotion.

“Pray. Step up. Kneel down,” Tarkington urged. “Step outside and be the light in the darkness.”

Heath Lambert, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, said the latest shooting reminds him of the love God displayed in the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus on the cross more than 2,000 years ago, followed by Jesus’ miraculous resurrection.

“There is a lesson for us in this. Confronted with the unvarnished evil of Sunday’s shooting, we must counter it with love. The antidote to hate is love,” Lambert wrote Sunday. “There are all sorts of ways we can love each other in the aftermath of this obvious hatred, but one way was made obvious in the hashtag, #Pray4Jax, that quickly appeared on social media. Right now, one of the most tangible ways we can love our city is with our prayers.”

Many lamented the killings as too common and a new normal, including Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry.

“We have faced an occurrence that is all too common,” Curry said Sunday at Jacksonville.com, the website of the Florida Times Union. “At terrible times, we see the best in people, and today is no different.”

In addition to First Baptist of Orange Park, ASK prayer meetings are set at seven Southern Baptist churches. Hosts, according to Wheeler, are the Southside campus of Chets Creek Church, pastored by Jeff Bedwell; Hillcrest Baptist Church, pastored by Chris Pruitt; Neptune Baptist Church, Tom Bary; Norwood Community Church, Elijah Simmons; Parkwood Baptist Church, Manny Kiser; and the Southside campus of San Jose Baptist Church, Marcus McGill.

Police described Sunday’s shooter as 24-year-old David Katz of Maryland who reportedly opened fire during a Madden NFL 19 tournament at Chicago Pizza, a restaurant at Jacksonville Landing. The tournament included cash prizes totaling $165,000, according to the Madden Classic website. Police did not state a motive for the 1:30 p.m. shooting, but a witness told Jacksonville.com that Katz was losing the game.

Police attributed Friday’s shooting at William Marion Raines Senior High School to gang violence, according the news reports. Diana Greene, superintendent of Duval County Public Schools, called the shooting indicative of a new normalcy.

“I first want to extend my thoughts and prayers to the victims of last night’s incident,” she said in a video posted on the Duval County Public Schools website Saturday (Aug. 25). “It is clear that this new normal means that there needs to be a new approach,” she said, pledging to meeting with community leaders for dialogue and new approaches to security.

The Raines High School shooting occurred about 15 minutes after Friday’s game, authorities said, when the crowd had dwindled from 4,000 to 1,000. Heavy security was already in place with 57 security officers on duty and metal detectors used to scan all attendees, police officers said. But it was not clear whether the gunman attended the game. The gunman had not been apprehended.

High school students across the nation have spoken against gun violence at schools after Feb. 14, when 14 were killed and 17 injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.