When there are mass shootings, like this week in Chicago, or the previous week in Toledo, Ohio — or, really, any week in this country — Episcopal Bishop Scott Hayashi thinks of that split second in a Tacoma, Washington record store decades ago. The beat when he turned toward a man with a gun to ask, “What did you say?” and saw his own 19-year-old face in the man’s mirrored shades before his body hit the floor.
Hayashi spent two months in the ICU and almost died after being shot in the stomach during the robbery. He now advocates with a group of other U.S. Episcopal bishops on the issue of gun violence. In 2018 the clerics decided their push was missing something: a prayer.
What resulted was a pleading that could only have been created by and for our modern America: “A Litany In The Wake Of A Mass Shooting.”
The prayer is among a new generation of spiritual tools specifically designed for the horror of mass shootings. Written by an Episcopal priest for the bishops, it was constructed with the cruel assumption of its growth, with additional shootings that result in more than four deaths continually added at the end. The litany now takes more than 12 minutes to pray.
“The function of this is keeping things in memory. Many people would like to forget it. Memory is one of the most important things, that makes us human. We can look back upon things and learn,” said Hayashi, now the bishop of Utah. “It’s like ‘Say her name: Breonna Taylor!’ Repeating it makes the events, the people holy. It sets those people apart with meaning, versus just a senseless act of violence.”
Hayashi recites the litany in the mix of his private prayer routines and said it earlier this week.
The prayer begins: “God of peace, we remember all those who have died in incidents of mass gun violence in this nation’s public and private spaces,” before launching into three-line sections, each with the same structure, but with their own unique horrifying details:
“Six dead at the Wisconsin Sikh Temple.
Give to the departed eternal rest.
Let light perpetual shine upon them.”
One common way it’s used is for the first two lines to be spoken by a worship leader, and the third by the congregation in response.
“Twelve dead at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater. Give to the departed eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them.
Twenty-eight dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Give to the departed eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them.”
The 2012 attack on a Sikh congregation near Milwaukee was the impetus for the creation of the Episcopal group Bishops United Against Gun Violence. It now includes about 100 bishops representing 4,200 congregations, said Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas, one of the conveners.
In 2016, the Union for Reform Judaism — the largest and one of the most liberal denominations of Jews — released “Against Gun Violence,” a prayer written in response to the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where 49 people were killed.
“Source of justice,
Rock of strength and truth,
You call upon us to stand
In the name of common sense and reason,” reads the prayer, which is more explicitly a call for policy action on gun control, “to remove military weapons from a civilian population, to return sanity to our laws, our policies and our lives. Bless those who dedicate themselves to gun control.”
“Blessed are You,
God of All Being,
Who summons us to choose life,
First, choose life,
The Reform movement’s website also offers “A Kaddish after Gun Violence, for When Humanity Fails Itself,” written in 2017. The Kaddish is the traditional Jewish prayer commemorating the dead. It never specifically mentions death and is a hymn of praise to God.
In 2016, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offered “Prayer for Peace In Our Communities.” The prayer, which refers to being “surrounded by violence and cries for justice,” is also, like the litany, constructed as a pleading. It asks God for virtue and to strengthen hearts “so that they beat only to the rhythm of your holy will … Strip away pride, suspicion, and racism.”
The Rev. Kathleen Moore, an Episcopal priest in Ohio who helps the bishops’ group with communications and wrote the litany, was a seminarian in 2018 when a gunman entered a bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., near her school and killed 12 people. She remembers the drive to do something that was a cross between worship and activism.
“We bandied about what we might do, and it’s a tough balance because we don’t want to be ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ people,” Moore said, referring to the common public statement of grief sometimes criticized as a poor substitute for systemic change. “You want to be careful, but also don’t throw prayer out — we believe in the power of prayer.”
“What I hoped it would do was, instead of having all these (shootings) flow into one another, and we can forget — instead, each is an individual petition. It demands that we remember each of these tragedies when people died.”
A litany is a common, millennia-old structure of prayer. It’s a pleading that is often call-and-response between a cleric and a congregation, said Ruth Meyers, a liturgics professor at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif.
“One thing that makes it work so well is it’s a short call and a fixed response, and allows the assembly to listen, to get into the prayer — almost like a mantra,” she said.
The litany can be said by anyone at any time, said Moore, and is meant as a resource that people can add to or change for their own use. Hayashi sometimes adds lines, such as the names of people he knows who died of gun violence, or the names of people who are working hard to reduce gun violence. He thinks of his own shooting during the prayer as well.
Bishops Against Gun Violence also has a structure to its use. When there is a U.S. shooting that results in four or more people being killed, the group asks the local bishop at the diocese of the shooting if he or she wants to recite it publicly. If they don’t, someone from the group will hold a reciting of it and publish it online.
Some litanies were designed to be prayed while processing, or walking around, said Bishop Jeffrey Lee, the interim bishop of Milwaukee and a member of the group. “It makes it a powerful tool. When you say it, you can almost feel the rhythm in the text of people walking in step together.”