At the Central Pacific District, we're always trying to find ways to tell different stories and speak to relevant situations going on in our communities. The shooting that took place at a Las Vegas concert on October 1, 2017 provided an opportunity for us to discover how Jesus can make beauty from ashes. The interview below with Former Associate Pastor Tim Dunfield at South Hills Church Community in Las Vegas provides a perspective from someone who has first-hand knowledge and experience with this tragic event, as well as offers how those impacted can find glimmers of hope in the midst of fear and sadness.
How is the Las Vegas community – as well as your church community – doing?
There was a lot of initial outpouring. The community really came together financially -- donating blood, services, food, everything for the first responders -- but now I think a lot of people have moved on. It's something that we remember. It's something that we kind of think about, but for the most part, this is a party town and so back to the grind.
Do you feel like Vegas is still aware of what happened or is it back to business as usual already?
Every once in a while, there will be something that reminds us. For example, the Raiders broke ground here recently, so that was a big televised event. But they had 58 beams of light shining up from the ground to remember the 58 victims killed.
We also had what’s called the Rock and Roll Half Marathon that runs down the strip and the start time was delayed by 58 seconds in honor of the victims. So, it's still on our minds, we still think about it. I was talking to one of our pastors here and he said he was down on the strip with his family just walking when suddenly he was more aware of what could happen. You catch yourself looking up at the casinos and high buildings and windows around you thinking, "It happened once, it could happen again." There's and increased sense of awareness of being in public spaces.
How was your church and staff impacted?
For us as a church, we knew people who were at the concert. One of them is a youth volunteer. His sister was shot in the lungs twice. One was lodged in her shoulder and one went through her lungs. One of her lungs had to be re-inflated to get her off the breathing machine so that they could put her in surgery again to remove the second bullet.
A young guy who had just started working as an EMT was at the concert. When the shootings happened, rather than running away, he started running into the chaos, looking around for anyone he could give first aid to and start triage on, even while the shooting is still going on and bullets are ricocheting around him.
When the shooting first happened, our pastors were out of town. All of our pastors except one were in Mexico shooting a video the night that it happened. We woke up the next morning to our phones blowing up and everybody saying get back here as soon as you can. We cut our video shoot short and jumped back in the car. The border was harder to get across that day.
So, we're driving back and the entire time thinking, “okay, what do we need to do, who do we need to call, how do we need to respond to this?” We obviously need to put a memorial service together and start calling people. The congregation responded by collecting water bottles and food. We also have a member of our church who works in that area, so we were able to connect with her and deliver the food and water directly to the first responders – some of them were working 48 hours straight.
We held a service for our community. There were metro officers who attended the service that were at the concert at the time of the shooting. A couple of the metro officers heard about what we were doing and they actually brought some of the survivors from the shooting to our church for that memorial service.
What do you think the short-term and long-term effects will be?
It’s impacted our church, it’s impacted our staff. It's impacted the conversations that we're having with people. I think there were some short-term effects like delievering the food and the water and the help and promoting the blood drives.
But then, I think about more of the long-term stuff. As we're beginning to hear stories of people who are coping with this tragedy and families who are struggling with it, we're realizing that we're needing to reset our agenda and reset our plans and think about how we talk and speak and preach about various subjects -- because suddenly, you can't just talk off-handedly about a tragedy. Now there are people in your community who have experienced that tragedy.
We're thinking much more about the words we say and how we use our words and the stories we tell.
What are some specific ways your church responded to the crisis?
We saw a lot of people at the memorial service that night who we'd never seen before. Whether they were police officers or friends of people of our church who for the first time said “yeah, I'll come to that service” or whether they just heard about it on our website, there were definitely people there and it was their first time they'd ever walked through the doors of a church. We didn't want to use that service as a “hey, come back on Sunday,” but at the same time we wanted them to know how we're reaching out and helping them and asking them how we can be there for them long term.
We're offering pastoral care and counseling, anything that people need. It's funny because people will call the church saying, "I need to come in and talk to somebody. How much does it cost?" It's great for us to be able to say it doesn't cost a thing. We're just here to help you and to be of service to you. There are a lot of counseling services in our city who have offered those services for free as well. A lot of people are taking advantage of the professional counseling help that's being offered, but we're still seeing people who are looking to a church to address the shooting spiritually, and help make sense of the mess that's going on that a counselor might not be able to help with.
Do you have any other personal stories you’d like to share?
There is one that comes to mind. There was a lady at the concert who had people shot and killed on either side of her as she’s running. The festival was fenced off since it was a paid event. There was nowhere for people to run to get away. The whole place was enclosed. So, people are running to the fences and trying to get over the fences and of course the fences are erected so you can't climb over them. So, she's running toward the fence, and as she gets there, these two guys grab her and throw her over. She's on the other side of the fence thinking, “How are you guys going to get over?” They looked at her and said, “We're not coming over, we're going back to help more people.”
I don’t know who they are, but a couple of guys who saved a person in our church by helping her get over the wall, rather than saving themselves. Even though the woman made it out, she's suffering from some pretty extreme PTSD.
As a church responding to a crisis like this, is there anything that you think you did relatively well or would like to do better?
On the humorous side, we learned that we can't send all of our pastors out of town again at the same time! Because the last time that something tragic happened in our city – a few years ago there was a car accident with a school bus and many of the school kids on the bus were killed -- it was really big news around here and all of our pastors were at a retreat. We’ve now decided that we're only allowing two pastors at a time to be gone.
There are always ways we can respond better to a crisis. But then there are also things that we have no control over in a crisis situation. Some of it is just remembering the basics when you're talking to people who are going through traumatic experiences or who have dealt with traumatic experiences, there are stages of how to help them.
I think sometimes as a church or as pastors, we tend to go right to the, "Well, God will take care of it, you may not understand now." And what some people actually need in the moment is to rest, eat well, and take care of themselves. We often forget the physical things because we're so quick to jump to the spiritual all the time. While people definitely need the spiritual, they also need a reminder that they still have to meet their basic needs – make sure you're sleeping, eating three meals a day, talking to somebody, you have a safe space to tell your story -- just the basic stuff that we forget.
Moving forward, I think that doing a service and having the church available and open the next day would be very helpful.
What have you learned?
There’s always a short-term reaction by the local community, but what about the long-term reaction? In the days and weeks following the shooting, the blood banks were overrun with people donating blood. Every Go Fund Me campaign for the victim's families were maxed out within hours or days.
There were so many people who gave food, the metro police officers had food they couldn't eat. We were involved with all of that, but what happens is, two weeks later, the community at large is saying, “Okay, we've given the money, we've helped with this, we've donated food, we've given blood. Now I've gotta get back to work.” The people who have really been affected by it are not done in two weeks.
Now they have to think about planning for the holidays without their loved one or trying to celebrate while someone they know is still in the hospital. When the shock of what happened is over, they’re going to be dealing with the stages of grief and need help making sense of it all. I think that's where the church comes into play, where we can say, “How can we help you make sense of the mess? How can we help you deal with this PTSD? How can we help your family through the holidays? How can we help steer you back, or help you get in touch with a God who can help you make sense of the mess?”
Are there any ongoing prayer requests for your church or for Las Vegas?
As a church, pray that we are sensitive to ongoing needs. It would be very easy to get focused on our normal agenda that we overlook the needs of the people in our community who are still dealing with this tragedy. Pray for us as a church to be sensitive to the needs that still exist in our community.
There are some families who are still dealing with the effects of this tragedy with some PTSD and also with family members who are still in the hospital and still dealing with physical effects of this. It’s great to be able to tell them you have a larger community praying for you as well.