After fatal shooting, a holy night
Teenager killed in Elkhart church parking lot; Prairie Street congregation reaches out to community
Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., hosted a candlelight vigil with a somber but optimistic tone following its Christmas Eve service after a teenager was fatally shot in a church parking lot the day before.
Devonte J. Patrick, 18, was found with a gunshot wound after Elkhart police received a report of a shooting around 2:45 p.m. Dec. 23. The Elkhart Truth reported he was taken to Elkhart General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Patrick had moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., but was back in Elkhart spending Christmas with his mother. The Truth reported Dec. 26 police had no suspects, but they did not believe the shooting was random.
The incident took place near the Jubilee House Mennonite Voluntary Service unit, but no one was home at the time because of Christmas break. J. Nelson Kraybill, Prairie Street’s lead pastor, said the church office was closed and Monday is his day off, so only neighbors were present at the time.
“I learned about it around 4:30,” he said. “By six o’clock I and others were in conversation about what this tragedy meant about our Christmas Eve service… . We decided to do the typical service, lessons and carols, but after the 45-minute service anyone who wanted could process to the church parking lot and hold a brief candlelight service.”
Kraybill got in touch with pastors of some predominantly African-American churches and a city councilman who knows the family, inviting others to the service.
“Usually it’s not a big crowd, 30 or 40, but we probably had 80 or 90 in the auditorium and a quarter of those were from the African-American community and a few neighbors,” he said, noting Patrick’s family attended. “As we held our service, the foyer at the back of the building and the hallway filled up.”
Kraybill and Church of Elkhart Pastor Christopher Pittman, along with Patrick’s mother, carried a gas lantern out and into the chilly evening, where about a hundred people clustered at the shooting site. Kraybill began with verses about angels proclaiming glory to God and peace on earth, but also commented on scriptures in Isaiah — Rachel weeping for her children, for they are no more.
“I said tonight in Elkhart Rachel weeps again and a mother weeps and we weep for the pain of this city,” Kraybill said. “I pointed out that in Jesus’ birth there was both great joy and terrible tragedy in that it was a violent society and Herod closed in as quickly as possible to kill the boys of Bethlehem… . We have had several incidents in this part of the city in the last few months of young men killing each other. Terrible violence.”
Prayers were offered for the city, the family of Patrick and that of the perpetrator, and for a coming together of people to work at reducing violence. One local television station broadcast the vigil live.
Though the largely white congregation has built some bridges with the Latino community and incorporates some bilingual aspects into its worship services, connections with the African- American community have not developed as much.
“I don’t know what will come of this, but I know I am interested and some of these other pastors are committed and interested in a conversation about violence in our city,” Kraybill said.
It has also opened new contacts in the immediate vicinity. Kraybill spoke Dec. 26 with a local man who was the first on the scene.
“For him it very much awakened his [post-traumatic stress disorder] background of some incident,” he said. “He told me of witnessing a suicide and being very near that violence, and he and I are now in a conversation with a pastoral role I didn’t have before.
“Sometimes [due to] the redemptive work of God in these situations, new doors open for some relationships and a lot of learning for us as a church, and maybe some opportunities for witness and mercy.”
From a bullet hole that has pierced the church’s front door for a number of years to Kraybill watching an arrest out his office window to two burglaries at Jubilee House in the last six months, Prairie Street can’t be accused of escaping the world’s problems.
Though Jubilee House residents weren’t home at the time, the volunteers have worked at the food bank, assisted with skills training, worked for restorative justice and victim/offender relationships, developed affordable housing and helped at a women’s shelter. Kraybill said there is a lot of energy and hope in the neighborhood, and it’s not a miserable place to be.
“Prairie Street is a vibrant and powerful place to worship; I don’t want to be anywhere else,” he said. “These people care about the community, and the light of Christ is even more visible and joyous in a place where there is some real darkness than in the places where it seems more comfortable.
“So we are not depressed, and we are not afraid, and this is exactly where the gospel should be. The gospel has always taken root at the margins of society and among the poor in spirit, and there are a lot of people in this neighborhood around us who are in poverty or are disadvantaged or have other huge economic and social challenges. It’s in these places where we realize ourselves that we need the gospel and the world needs the gospel. There’s a lot of joy here.”
As a candle shines brighter when surrounded by darkness, Elkhart’s most recent tragedy amplified the Christmas story.
“It was certainly the richest Christmas experience I’ve had,” Kraybill said. “Marking the birth of Jesus this year, that experience, the liturgy, the music, the story, it penetrated more deeply in my soul than I ever remember, and I’m praying the same for the family of this lad.”
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