Priests are often called upon in times of stress, including violent incidents that occur too often in American communities. Below, a pastor reflects on the violence that has afflicted his own parish.
By Father Matthew Weber
“Peace in the Lord Jesus.” This is my usual salutation in my letters to my parishioners.
Recently, as I greeted them with peace, I had to write about tragedy — the murder of 9-year-old Jennifer “Chikis” Trejo-Gomez, a healthy and vivacious girl who was cut down by a stray bullet while sleeping in the “safety” of her bedroom.
Too many murders have occurred in our parish of Holy Cross since I arrived in 2016 — most in Bridgeton and two in other parts of the parish. The murder of an innocent child draws much attention and strikes deeply in the heart; regardless, each homicide is a tragedy.
As Deacon Arnaldo Santos and I visited the Trejo-Gomez family and prayed with them, we felt shock, anger, and a sense of helplessness. We walked the neighborhood and talked with some neighbors and we felt the grinding poverty of the area. Murder is the ultimate tragedy; yet, poverty — both in cities like Bridgeton and in many rural areas of our parish and diocese — is also a tragedy and grind that wears people down.
Furthermore, the scourge of drugs (both in Bridgeton and in all our towns), gangs, domestic abuse, abortion, apathy, discrimination, selfishness and greed tear at us too. All this weighs on me, on our parishioners and on people of goodwill.
As Deacon Santos and I felt shock and anger, we continue and our parish continues to pray with the Trejo-Gomez family. We continue to pray — in solidarity. We must pray. We must stand united. We must speak up. We must act. We cannot stop!
I have by my side the “Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi”; it begins with the words: “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. …” While the prayer is attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, it really was composed at the beginning of the 20th century. Regardless, the prayer encapsulates the beautiful and challenging teachings of the Gospel and the spirituality of Saint Francis.
It is a prayer that acknowledges sin, yet offers the light and hope of the Gospel. It is a prayer that calls us to be instruments of God’s peace beginning in ways that are within our reach: saying a prayer, writing a note of encouragement, cleaning our front yards and neighborhood curbsides, reaching out to a neighbor in need, offering tips to the police, speaking up at and working with municipal councils, contacting our local, state and federal representatives, casting a vote, volunteering in the many parochial organizations that carry out works of mercy and promote peace and justice.
I thank my parishioners and all people of goodwill who live this prayer. I thank them for raising their voices, for their activism, kindness, compassion and work for justice. I thank them for getting involved in our parish and for making our world a better place in some small way.
Much work needs to be done. Since I began this article another person in Bridgeton was killed by a pass-by shooter and a boys’ football coach in Millville was murdered in front of his team. Violence and godlessness continue; but we cannot lose hope. Hope is one of the theological virtues bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit at baptism. Hope anchors us in God and strengthens us in bleak moments. Let us continue the struggle in hopefulness. I know that we cannot change the past; but, perhaps, we can change the future.
Eternal rest, O Lord, grant unto Jennifer and unto all other victims of violence and injustice. May they rest in peace. Amen.
Father Matthew Weber is pastor of Holy Cross Parish, Bridgeton.