Prayer vigils slated for 7 p.m. in Southbridge, Sturbridge

By Shaun Moriarty
Citizen Chronicle Writer
shaun@thecitizenchronicle.com
Editor’s Note: After publication of the article below, organizers of the “Prayers for Peace” vigil in Sturbridge has been postponed due to weather. The “A Prayer Vigil to End All Violence” in Southbridge is still scheduled to take place.

Whether they’re seeking action, answers, or comfort, many locals are expected to take part in candlelight vigils this evening.

In the wake of Wednesday’s tragic mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a pair of vigils will be held at 7 p.m. on Saturday. A Prayer Vigil to End All Violence will be held on the Southbridge Town Common while the Prayers for Peace vigil will be held on the Sturbridge Town Common. Both events are open to the general public.

“With the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, our hearts break as a community,” said Kelly Jean Yap, who has helped put together Sturbridge’s vigil plans. “As the country mourns the loss of these beautiful children and adults, we must come together, somber, and reflect upon our own lives.”

The Rev. Kirsten Nelson Roenfeldt, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Sturbridge, has worked to line up a series of speakers for the vigil on the Sturbridge Town Common. She said the vigil is being put together by local Christian congregations, and all speakers are slated to be church leaders and representatives.

“The theme is that we belong to each other. When we listen to one another generously and continue to bravely speak from our hearts, we have the power to transform the conversation,” she said. “One thing our Christian faith understands clearly is that God is a life-giving God and does not want us to be killing each other. Therefore, how do we move forward from here as a society of people who care deeply for the freedom of ourselves and our neighbors.”

Southbridge School Committee members Amelia Peloquin and Jacquelyn Ryan have organized the vigil in Southbridge. Peloquin said she will host the vigil alongside Paul Zotos, with whom she will perform live music. She added the vigil will feature remarks from parents and teachers. As of Friday evening, Peloquin said she was “looking for some high school students” as well. Ryan was unavailable for comment.

Frustrated Americans across the country have turned to admonish the familiar well wishes of “thoughts and prayers” after many of the recent school shootings, demanding that legislative action take place rather than offerings of hope the tragedies end. Yap believes those prayers still have a place in the healing process.

“So many people say they are ‘tired of praying, it’s not getting us anywhere.’ I disagree. Prayers in numbers are significant. It builds faith, strength, and love for our community,” Yap said, adding that action beyond prayers is also a necessity. “We need to open our eyes and listen when people are talking. Say something when we see or hear something that is wrong. People need to be more loving, and as a result it will trickle down to our children, reducing stress and anxiety. Negativity is infectious and we cannot lead that way.”

Pastor Kirsten added: “For myself, what is at stake here is the spiritual health of America. Allowing the conversation to be driven by all-or-nothing thinking is damaging the fabric of our society, which is our ability to freely speak, to advocate, to find mutual solutions even when we disagree. We are so far from that now, and it is a role of the faith leaders to help lead us back.”

As for specific calls for action, Yap said Sturbridge’s vigil is more about prayers and healing than political stances. That does not mean, however, she remains silent on the need for action.

“To change we need to change within ourselves and lead by example. Write to your Congressman and personalize your statements and concerns,” she said. “Make sure you are voting for the people who have your best interests at heart. Above all, don’t stop praying — that will mean we will lose hope. I’m not ready for that.”

Southbridge’s vigil will take a more political tone.

“We are a prayer vigil, but we are also an overtly political protest against gun violence,” said Peloquin. She added that she will be collecting signatures, registering voters, and urging people to exercise their right to vote. “I am introducing people to the fight of my life, in the hopes that it becomes their fight as well.”

For Pastor Kirsten, the healing process and calls for action are not mutually exclusive.

“Peace, grieving, and activism all go together,” she said. “They are all spiritual.”

While a limited supply of candles may be available at the vigils, organizers urge vigil-goers to bring their own tapered candles.

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