By Kirk Petersen
Hundreds of Episcopalians and others gathered in Brush Square Park early July 8 to hear emotional witness from the family of Carmen Schentrup, who died in a Parkland, Florida, mass shooting on Ash Wednesday.
The event was sponsored by Bishops Against Gun Violence, a group of 80 Episcopal bishops who ground their advocacy on “an ethic of Christian compassion and concern for the common good,” according to the group’s website.
The presentations took place against a backdrop of four dozen bishops, clad in rochets, chimeres, and stoles in the humidity of an 80-degree Austin morning. Some of the bishops struggled with tears and were comforted by their brother and sister bishops.
Speakers included Philip and April Schentrup, whose 16-year-old daughter was one of the first victims of the mass shooting in Parkland this year. They urged a crowd of about 500 to honor their daughter’s memory by advocating against gun violence.
Philip Schentrup told of being angered in the wake of the Feb. 14 massacre when well-meaning people “attempted to console me and my family by saying Carmen’s death was part of God’s plan,” which drew a startled gasp from many in the audience.
“Why would God take one of the most incredible people I’ve ever known?” he asked. In an address to the House of Bishops the day before, he said Carmen had been the head of her church youth group and an honor student, planning to become a medical researcher to seek a cure for ALS.
“I struggled with this for weeks,” he said about his crisis of faith. “What if I got to heaven and I didn’t like God’s answers?”
Eventually, in “a moment of inspired reflection,” he decided that “God did not intend to inflict deep and lasting damage on me and my family. God is saddened by Carmen’s murder, and all the violence people inflict on one another. God weeps for all his children.”
He added: “Evil and violence occur in this world because we allow it, not because God allows it.”
“I struggle to feel joy at church some Sundays, because I can’t see [Carmen] smile from the choir loft,” said Carmen’s mother, April.“Our nation’s love of guns is killing those we love.”
Abigail Zimmerman of Waco, Texas, a rising ninth-grader who helped organize a 17-minute walkout in her middle school to honor the victims of Parkland, began her remarks by describing her shock as an 8-year-old, on December 14, 2012, hearing that a gunman had killed 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Between that atrocity and the Parkland shooting, she said, 138 people, mostly children, were killed in school shootings. “But this time, the survivors refused to let it continue. They found their voice. We found our voice. I found my voice,” she said to a burst of applause.
Zimmerman is a communicant at St. Alban’s Church in Waco, Texas. Along with her friend Lilly — “a Presbyterian, but still cool,” she said to laughter — she organized a walkout that gained the support of teachers and the school administration. She told of her emotion in researching and compiling the names of the 17 Parkland students killed, so that one could be honored during each minute of the 17-minute walkout.
“This is an epidemic,” said Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith, one of the co-conveners of Bishops Against Gun Violence. “We are bearers of hope. As we know, hope is believing in spite of the evidence — and then watching the evidence change.”
In closing remarks, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said that “progress does not happen on the wheels of inevitability.” He urged the audience to take action: “Our work is to help God end a nightmare.”