The mystery of mortality—of our living and dying—played itself out a remarkable way last night as two Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations in Southern California gathered for a joint Ash Wednesday service.
Three bowls were on the communion table at St. Mark Presbyterian Church. Two were filled with ashes for marking a visible cross on parishioner’s foreheads. The third bowl contained gunpowder.
It was a tangible reminder for people from St. Mark in Newport Beach and New Hope Presbyterian Church in Orange of the 30,000 people who die each year as a result of gun violence.
The service became personal when the Rev. Chineta Goodjoin, pastor of New Hope, stood to address those gathered. “I told them that I would be anointing my head with gunpowder,” she said, “that I was doing this to stand in solidarity with my dear friend who was killed by a bullet.”
Sharonda Coleman Singleton was one of nine killed in the June 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.
“She was in my wedding, there for the birth of my child, we were college classmates,” said Goodjoin. “I wanted to turn that bullet that killed her into something more meaningful.
During Lent, St. Mark and New Hope are doing a six-week Bible study together on gun violence—last night’s Ash Wednesday service was for members of both congregations to become even more aware of the personal impact of gun violence in our country.
“I was a little bit numb by the time I got there for the actual sign of the cross,” said Goodjoin. “But before, during some reflection time, I felt a great wave of pain and relief as I tried to identify with Sharonda—with what she must have gone through in a place of prayer as she was shot.”
As this was happening Goodjoin prayed for the victims of San Bernardino and Sandy Hook, imagining the surprise of what they must have felt.
And then she had a flashback to the grief she felt, remembering the voice message she still has on her cell phone. Two days before Singleton was killed she had called Goodjoin.
“She said on that voice mail, five different times, ‘All shall be well, all shall be well,’” said Goodjoin. “It was very emotional for me, standing there in the sanctuary at the communion table remembering, and then seeing just the gunpowder, there was no bullet there.”