KIRKWOOD, Mo. (RNS) Three years after a gunman opened fire and killed six people at a Kirkwood City Council meeting, the Rev. David Holyan recently found himself in Tucson, Ariz.
Holyan, 46, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, has become an accidental expert in what the Presbyterian Church (USA) calls “human-caused disaster” response. More precisely, he is a member of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s National Response Team.
His expertise comes from the victim side. Holyan’s church became a spiritual hub for the community in the wake of the shooting rampage on Feb. 7, 2008, that claimed the lives of six people—including two of Holyan’s parishioners—and the gunman.
In the hours after the 2008 shooting, Holyan was at the hospital with staff member Cathy Yost, whose husband, Ken, the city’s public works director, had been killed.
“My instinct is to step into the hard places and be calm, but nothing prepares you for this,” Holyan said. “You can’t prepare for human-cause disaster. It rattles you to the core of your being.”
After seeing Cathy Yost home and returning to church to talk to the staff, Holyan walked downtown “to feel what was going on and see it for myself.” There was a fair amount of activity inside the yellow crime scene tape as small groups huddled together around the edges, crying.
“It made it all real,” Holyan said. “It was more than just our staff. The whole community was affected by it.”
As he took in the scene, his cell phone rang. It was the Rev. Paul Reiter, the regional leader for the Presbyterian Church (USA).
“He asked what I needed, and I said I didn’t know what I needed,” Holyan said. “He told me the PDA would show up soon. I said OK, and hung up the phone. I had no idea how that would help.”
By the next day, a team from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance had flown in to help Holyan help his flock. That weekend, as dazed parishioners looked to him for context and meaning, Holyan had to give a sermon that would attempt to make sense of the senseless.
The next day, he preached at Ken Yost’s funeral service. (Kirkwood Mayor Mike Swoboda, who was shot and died of complications seven months later, was also a member of First Presbyterian.)
Holyan said those days were the hardest of his career, and they prepared him for his current role in PDA, able to provide perspective from the point of view of those who had experienced horror firsthand.
When eight people were killed in a massive gas pipeline explosion in California in September, Holyan was part of the team called in to help.
“It’s very redemptive for me,” Holyan said. “The horror of what happened in Kirkwood was transformed to become wisdom for others going through a similar situation.”
Holyan flew to Tucson three days after the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others, “showing up in the midst of mass confusion, bewilderment and shock,” he said.
One of the pastoral goals of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is the “stabilization of the ministry, not individuals,” Holyan said. Ultimately, the wider community is served by concentrating on religious leaders’ mental and physical health.
“You need those who are being pastoral to also be healthy,” he said. “They’re going to be the last ones aware of how affected they are. A pastor’s immediate instinct is to care for others first, then the bigger system, then, finally, themselves, when they figure out, `Wait a second, I have no energy left.“‘
Holyan and his team were invited to a meet with Tucson clergy, and encouraged them to allow people “space” before pushing toward healing. The pastor and his team were asked to attend the funeral of 9-year-old victim Christina Greene, and worked at Northminster Presbyterian Church where the oldest Tucson victim, Phyllis Schneck, 79, worshipped.
Holyan plans to return to Tucson in March and again in May to make sure religious leaders are healthy.
“People want you to make sense out of the senseless and help them figure out how God could still be a part of that, or at least present in it,” he said. “That’s a lot of work.”
With more experience than he ever wanted responding to human-caused disaster, Holyan has honed in on his favorite passage from Scripture. It’s a familiar one, from Psalm 23. He calls it “the cry of my heart”:
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” it reads. “For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
In the aftermath of human-caused disasters like those in Kirkwood or Tucson, “We’re in that shadowy place we don’t know,” Holyan said. “And at the end of the day, the invitation is to be unafraid.”
(Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo.)