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Thoughts and prayers are empty words without action, Tampa Bay religious leaders say

The Very Rev. Stephen Morris speaking at the Cathedral Church of St. Peter, in St. Petersburg on Aug. 4 about the mass shootings. Courtesy of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter
Published Aug. 10

Thoughts and prayers. It's the catch phrase of supposed comfort after mass shootings. The sound bite of politicians.

But for some whose vocation is offering prayer and comfort, those words are meaningless without concrete action. It's time, to use the vernacular, to speak truth to power, and work for change. For others, it's less clear cut.

"Judaism is a religion of deeds and not only creed. ... Prayers at times like this are insufficient," said Rabbi Josh Hearshen of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in South Tampa.

"It's not to say that I don't believe in prayer, but saying to somebody, 'I'm praying for you,' is not sufficient if we're not doing anything to change the world for them.'' he said. "If Dr. Martin Luther King had merely prayed each day, we'd still be living in segregated cities. We need moral courage to have the conversation about what can be done."

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In St. Petersburg last Sunday, hours after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the Very Rev. Stephen Morris, dean of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Peter, who didn't give the sermon, took time during the service to speak about the tragedies.

"When is enough, enough?" he asked, and suggested parishioners read a statement from the Bishop of Washington, D.C, and the dean of Washington National Cathedral about what Morris summed up as "the power of vicious, vile, hate-filled, racist language."

"It's part of what is going on," he said. "We are so divided. And we're allowing — we, maybe not you — but I am, I am allowing for this to go on. But silence is complicity. It's so discouraging and so now we're like going back in time in this nation and picking ... ripping the scabs off our besetting sin, which is racism ... and that is not Christian."

Referring to that day's reading from Paul's letter to the Colossians, which spoke of getting rid of anger, wrath, slander and abusive language, he added, "Being children of God, people who believe in the way of Jesus Christ, there is absolutely no room in our lives ... for racist, hate-filled, vile, vicious language."

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The Rev. Tim Kelley didn't know that the El Paso shooting had been racially motivated when he spoke to his congregation. He led the church in prayer for the two cities and their leaders.

And said the pastor of Grace Connection Church, "I prayed for the families and that they would take some comfort from talk and I prayed that people would support them in the long-term."

Kelley speaks from experience. His daughter Hannah died in an accidental shooting on church property in 2012. "I know how dark it is and you're just groping for answers. I know what these families are feeling and facing and the absolute agony they are going through," he said.

"One of my fears is that we, as a culture, we are getting hardened and it will cease to shock us anymore," he said of the mass killings. "I feel that as a Christian, we have a message of hope for the world, but unfortunately, we have allowed (the world) to define us. We get so busy talking about political differences and we lose the truth of the simple faith. We have to show it in our love and good works."

Some religious leaders speak of distancing themselves from politics. After the shootings, Pastor Joe Van Koevering of Gateway Christian Center, an evangelical church in South Pasadena, prayed for America and a "broken" Washington. He believes the nation is experiencing what has been prophesied in Leviticus.

"This is the result of the people's disobedience in America and now we have these enemies," he said."These guys are evil. You are not going to take evil out of somebody's heart. I don't think that anybody is responsible for this. ... I know that they want to make the president responsible for this guy," he said of the El Paso killer. "It is impossible to blame our president for these catastrophes. I don't believe that the solutions are going to be in Washington. I think that we desperately need to repent."

The Rev. Louis Murphy, who leads one of St. Petersburg's largest mostly African-American congregations, has a different approach.

"I hesitate to express my thoughts and feelings for fear of being misunderstood, but I am encouraged by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, 'Silence in the time of moral crisis is betrayal,'" the pastor of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church said.

"We have an obligation to be knowledgeable and involved in what is happening in our nation from a political perspective," he said. "You can't help but talk about the state of the nation when you see such an increase in these mass shootings. And what is so interesting to me is the unwillingness to talk about our Commander in Chief and his rhetoric."

Murphy said he wants "honest dialogue about the increase in division and racism." In a philosophy that mirrors that of Hearshen and Morris, he added: "Let love overcome hate, but you have to be active. You cannot stay on the sidelines. ... We need to pray, but prayer without works is dead."

Hearshen planned to speak about the shootings during Sabbath services this weekend, a few hours before Tisha b'Av, described as the saddest 25 hours of the Jewish year. It's a time of mourning for Jews and marks the destruction of the first and second temples, along with other tragic events.

"As Americans, we need to learn to grieve a lot more...These things keep happening again and again," he said of the shootings.

"As a faith leader, I don't have the policy answers to these problems. I don't know how to get guns to be less dangerous. I don't know how to deal with mental illness on a global scale. ... Murder is never an acceptable option and tools of murder need to be less easy to obtain."

And about those thoughts and prayers?

"Prayer and compassion are what we have to offer in times like this and we should never underestimate the power of prayer," said Bishop Gregory Parkes, head of Tampa Bay's Roman Catholics. "As people of faith, we trust in God and prayers to bring about needed action."

RELATED STORY: Many turn to El Paso's Catholic traditions after massacre

"I maintain that prayers do not change things," Morris said. "Thoughts and prayers are meant to change primarily the one doing the praying, and for us to be in a better place to more effectively act."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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