It is roughly 3,019 miles from Gilroy to Newtown, Conn. – the town where one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history occurred just days ago.
But the shockwaves sent from the school massacre orchestrated by a lone gunman that left 26 dead, mostly young children, have been felt throughout the nation, because what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in the town of 27,560 could happen in any small town in America.
That’s why Pastor Greg Quirke with South Valley Community Church decided to organize a candlelight vigil Monday evening to honor the memories of those who lost their lives on that tragic Friday afternoon.
“What we’re trying to do is diffuse the stress that something like this has on our community. Obviously as they are saying in the news, ‘A nation is grieving.’ We’re part of that,” said Quirke, who also acts as the chaplain for the Gilroy Police Department.
“Bottom line is we’re going to create an opportunity for everyone to pray for the families, the first responders, and also the community and surviving children and staff at the school,” Quirke continued.
One of the first families to arrive at the church near First Street and Santa Teresa Boulevard was the Andrews, which includes husband/wife Bill and Amy along with their two teenage daughters, Kendall and Cassidy.
“You just want to pay your respects,” said Bill, reflecting on what brought him and his family out on a cold, rainy evening.
“It’s just amazing that such a little piece of time can damage so many people,” added his wife, Amy. “When things like this happen, you want to hold your kids that much closer and tighter than you normally would.”
Their daughter, Kendall, first heard about the horrific news from her substitute teacher at Christopher High School, but it didn’t really sink in until she returned home and started watching the news.
“At first, I didn’t understand how God would let something like this happen,” said the 14-year-old student. “But I guess he wanted to bring his kids home.”
Kendall’s younger sister, Cassidy, was home sick from school and alerted her mother when she heard about what had happened in the quaint community of Newtown.
“I thought, ‘I can’t believe this happened again.’ There have been so many times,” said the 13-year-old Brownell Academy student. “It makes me angry. How can all these bad things be happening? How can someone look into a kid’s eye and shoot them? That’s just evil.”
Jerry and Lucy Ulrich were also among the 70 or so visitors who attended the candlelight vigil. The school tragedy hit home for the couple, who own a Kids Academy preschool and daycare center in Santa Clara.
“It tells us that we better have a plan at our school,” said Jerry Ulrich, a member of the church since 2002. “To hurt a child is horrendous. It’s the absolute worst crime against humanity – against God – to hurt his children.”
Before sitting down to await the start of the ceremony, Lucy Ulrich said, “We’re here just to join with others to pray for the parents and families and all those who perished in Connecticut, especially the children.”
Pastor Quirke’s opening statement about the tragic events used words such as “unthinkable,” “unimaginable” and “senseless tragedy.” He spoke to the crowd about wanting to “come together to hold onto hope.” He then welcomed Mayor Don Gage to the podium to share some words.
Gage spoke of his own family and how they taught him “that you have to remain strong physically, emotionally and religiously.”
Keeping it short and to the point, Gage also said: “The stronger the community, the stronger the bond, the stronger the message.”
Founding South Valley Pastor Eric Smith followed Gage and expressed his thoughts by speaking of the “suffering and anguish of the families.”
Smith, who led everyone in a prayer, mentioned how there will be 26 funerals in one community this week. He asked “through despair to find strength, hope and courage.”
After Pastor Quirk returned to lead a prayer for the first responders and agencies, Pastor Donna Garcia, who is the superintendent for Pacific West Christian Academy, focused on the teachers and educators who dedicate their lives to working with children. She also spoke of the students, most of them only 6 years old, who were killed – “making the senseless loss even more devastating because precious children were involved.”
Garcia’s speech included a deep passage, stating, “the world seems a bit darker this Christmas.”
The ceremony continued with Quirk reading off the names and ages of all those who lost their lives, as three large projector screens flashed photographs of the victims. Church members lit 26 candles to represent the 26 lives lost.
Local “X Factor” star Austin Corini – who is the son of the children’s pastor at South Valley – performed the song, “Always,” by the group Building 429. Corini’s mother, Jeanine, sang alongside her son while playing the acoustic guitar. The song’s message was, “God will be with you always.”
“There’s nothing to say that something like this can happen in our community,” said Gage, earlier that night. “And in my opinion, you have to turn to faith to have the resolve and the strength to get through it. So having these vigils and praying for those folks who are going through it is important.”