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  • Writer's pictureSt. John's

A Message Regarding the Recent Shooting Incident at the Cathedral

To the Clergy and People of the Diocese My Brothers and Sisters, On Sunday afternoon at 3 o’clock, the choristers of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, led by their director, Kent Tritle, offered a beautiful and sublime concert of Christmas music on the steps of the cathedral. Some three to four hundred people, masked and distanced, gathered in the street and on the sidewalks to listen and attend to this seasonal gift. For most, if not all of us, in a time of virtual and distanced worship, this might be the only live Christmas music we would hear this season. When the concert concluded at 3:45 p.m., a number of people went inside to enjoy the peace and silence of our great cathedral, and others began to return to their homes, but some seventy-five to a hundred people remained in the street before the cathedral, chatting and visiting with one another, and enjoying the opportunity to be together, and celebrating together the music we had just heard. The dean of the cathedral, Clifton (Dan) Daniel and I were among them. Around 4:00 p.m., gunshots rang out, and we turned to see a man brandishing two handguns, standing immediately before the great bronze doors, in the Portal of Paradise, rapidly firing a sustained barrage of gunfire from both weapons. The sound was a very loud staccato of blasts which reverberated through the neighbourhood. Most of the gathered crowd dispersed quickly, with people running down Amsterdam Avenue and up 112th Street, as the gunfire continued. Dean Daniel and I remained, and both of us went to attend to a man who had fallen and injured himself. The shooting continued, but soon with armed police officers attempting to engage the gunman and trying to diffuse the situation. But the shooter was raving and impossible to reach. He continued firing, over and over and over, and now shouting “Kill me! Kill me! Kill me!” It is important to note that at no time, to my observation, did the gunman aim his weapons at any person, or fire at any person, and no one was hurt. His destructive behaviours seemed to be entirely self-directed. One of the security officers of the cathedral ran to Dan and me and told us that we could be considered targets of this violence and must not remain on the street as we were. We followed him around the side of the cathedral onto the upper drive. The gunfire continued as we left the immediate scene of the shooting. We came to a small group of people who had come out of the side door of the cathedral, who reported that the people inside the cathedral were confused and frightened and did not know what was happening. So, I offered to go into the cathedral and talk to them. Which I did. I told them what I had seen and what I knew, and then we prayed together. We prayed for the cathedral community, and for those in the neighbourhood and for those who had come to the concert and were then traumatized by the eruption of violence. And we prayed for the gunman himself, recognizing that he was a disturbed and troubled person who, throughout this confusion, had made no assault on any person, but who appeared to want to end his life. A person who deserved our compassion even in the hour of our outrage and fear. Moments later I came across the choristers, sheltered in the practice room, and shared the same thoughts with them. Coming back outside, I saw Amsterdam Avenue filled with police cars, and a host of police officers throughout the cathedral close and Amsterdam Avenue. It was then that I learned that the police had shot the gunman and contained the scene. This was a terrible resolution of the situation, but in all things, I can only give thanks for how well we were served by the police and first responders. This could have been much worse. It is a grace that no one other than the shooter himself was harmed. But we who were present at the cathedral that afternoon came away having to carry in our hearts two conflicting feelings at once: First was the celebration in fantastic sacred music of the promise of Advent and Christmas, that Christ has come - Emmanuel, God-with-us - and all of the possibility that that means for a kingdom of peace and good will - the Kingdom of God. But beside that was the fear and confusion of an intrusion into that peace and beauty of violence and threat and death. A violation of our sacred space, and terror inflicted on a holy gathering of people. I suspect that carrying these memories and exploring these feelings may lead us to the deep spiritual currents of this season, where the stark and forbidding scriptural passages of Advent meet the sublime and gentle story of the birth of Christ. I suspect that there may be something in seeing so dramatically the confluence of thoughts and prayers and feelings where the Gospel hope meets the deep needs of the world, that will help us to apprehend incarnation and new birth and the forever need of the world for a saviour. In a statement by the cathedral, it is said: “We will remain strong, together, and serve as a safe space for prayer, meditation and celebration during the upcoming holiday season. We are grateful to our first responders, and our prayers are with all those affected by this event." On an afternoon that brought us the most sublime and beautiful Christmas music, a whirlwind of terror, and the shock of self-destructive violence, I bid you all, in the Name of Christ, the fullness of Advent hope and Christmas peace.

The Right Reverend Andrew ML Dietsche Bishop of New York

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