By Kirk Petersen
When a gunman was killed by police on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, one of the cathedral’s priests had a sense of déjà vu.
On December 20, a man with a handgun in each hand started firing into the air at the conclusion of an outdoor Christmas concert. Police opened fire, and the gunman was the only casualty.
The Rev. Canon Patrick Malloy serves the cathedral as a sub-dean. He attended the concert but had stepped away and did not witness the shooting. “I was on the drive next to the church talking to visitors about our peacocks,” he said, when people began running past him, and his mind registered the sound of gunfire. He pulled the people near him into his apartment building on the church’s campus, where they sheltered until they got word that all was safe.
Twelve years earlier, Malloy had been the rector of Grace Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It was built as a high-society church in 1866, but as the steel industry declined, the neighborhood did as well, and there were “drug deals on the steps of the church all the time,” Malloy said. In 2008 it had an average Sunday attendance of about 60, and a modest endowment.
He said that the parish decided to commit itself to the neighborhood, even as other nearby churches closed. They started a Montessori school for poor children, hosted a food distribution center, and offered classes for high school equivalency and English as a second language. According to an article in the September 14, 2008 issue of TLC, the church once was described at a national conference as “the largest small church in the U.S.A.”
“It was just a wonderful place,” Malloy said.
“One Sunday we went to church and found out that someone had been murdered in our parking lot the night before,” Malloy said. On August 10, 2008, 20-year-old Jameel Clark was shot and killed by a gang member in an argument that escalated, according to news reports at the time.
The parish leadership discussed how to respond to the incident, and “we decided to do something liturgical, we were already doing so much social stuff,” Malloy said. So two weeks later, Malloy led a procession of about 80 parishioners and neighborhood residents from the church to the spot of the murder,” to pray, to reclaim the space, and to recommit to the neighborhood.
“We will feed the hungry and educate the needy and do what we can so the jobless can find work,” he told the assembly. “We are the witnesses of the light… We will not shrink from the darkness, we will never surrender to it… we will build a fire because a fire burns in us… And we will huddle together in its light and in its warmth, and we will not leave, no matter how dark and cold it becomes.”
Take note of the theme of light and darkness, you will see it again.
Fast-forward to 2020, and a fatal shooting that church members and others actually witnessed. Two of those witnesses were the Rt. Rev. Andrew Dietsche, the Bishop of New York, and the Rt. Rev. Clifton Daniel, dean of the cathedral. Dietsche described the scene later in a letter to the diocese:
Around 4:00 p.m., gunshots rang out, and we turned to see a man brandishing two handguns, standing immediately before the great bronze doors, in the Portal of Paradise, rapidly firing a sustained barrage of gunfire from both weapons. The sound was a very loud staccato of blasts which reverberated through the neighborhood. Most of the gathered crowd dispersed quickly, with people running down Amsterdam Avenue and up 112th Street, as the gunfire continued.
Dean Daniel and I remained, and both of us went to attend to a man who had fallen and injured himself. The shooting continued, but soon with armed police officers attempting to engage the gunman and trying to diffuse the situation. But the shooter was raving and impossible to reach. He continued firing, over and over and over, and now shouting “Kill me! Kill me! Kill me!”
When cathedral leadership began discussing how to respond to the spilling of blood on the steps of one of the largest cathedrals in the world, “I said wait a minute, I’ve done this before,” Malloy said. “I just have to go into my files and pull out the liturgy I wrote for the event in Allentown, and I could easily adapt it for this.”
So it came to pass that on the Friday following the shooting, the bishop and dean presided at a “Rite in Defiance of Darkness” on the cathedral steps, written by Malloy and attended by the litanists and a few dozen masked and distanced observers. The nine-minute rite was captured on video and played during the cathedral’s services on Sunday, and is now available on Facebook.
After reading several paragraphs from a New York Times article on the shooting, two litanists read a series of supplications about the darkness of hunger, despair, rage, isolation, COVID, conspiracy theories, mental illness, illiteracy, and everything that plagues the world, the city, and the neighborhood. They sought freedom both from disdain for the police and from police brutality. Each supplication ended with “from the works of darkness…” drawing the response, “deliver us, O God.”
Bishop Dietsche closed in prayer. “Touch with the cleansing of your presence, this place where blood has been shed,” he implored God. “Open our eyes to see this place marred by violence as a sacred ground still. A place where you dwell.”