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The Meaning Of Faith In The Wake Of Tragedy

Chris Smith
Chris Smith

Leaders from several faith communities were part of a vigil at the Guardian Angel Cathedral Monday night.

In the wake of Sunday’s tragedy, many people in the community turn to faith for their own comfort and for support.

It almost feels a familiar rhythm of grief when a tragedy of this magnitude occurs: Religious leaders, politicians, and public figures emerge to offer thoughts and prayers to those afflicted. 

Candlelight vigils and prayer groups have taken place all week here in Las Vegas – as well as around the country – giving citizens the chance to voice support for the victims and their families. 

So what role do faith communities play for people, and what role should faith leaders take for people?

On what they thought when they first heard the news:

Fahima Khalaf: “I saw that it was happening at Route 91 and I was so worried and I said ‘please don’t let it be a Muslim.’ Our community has dealt with so much. We’re working so hard to fight biases and racists and prejudice – so please don’t let it be a Muslim and then I remembered that I had friends that were there at the festival and I was texting them, ‘are you okay.’

We were in shock, disbelief, and worry. It was just awful."

Rabbi Sanford Akselrod: "My wife tapped me on the shoulder and said I think there is something going on that you should know about. From that moment on, off and on all night long, I just kept waking up, getting an update. It seemed like there were dozens of people hurt, but 20 people killed and the numbers just kept going up from there.

I kept thinking this is going to be something we haven’t seen before and we’re going to need to respond because I know personally I’m feeling something and I know others are going to be feeling the same thing."

Marvin Gawryn: "I woke up at 6 a.m. Monday morning and I had text from a good friend of mine asking about how I was reacting and if I was safe and if my family and friends were safe. I had no idea what she was referring to. I wasn’t aware of the situation.

I jumped into the middle of it and it quite intense."

Pastor Ralph Williams: "It took place for me at 3:45 a.m. I received a call from someone who was on the East Coast and they woke me up and they said, ‘Pastor Ralph, what are you going to do about the situation that took place last evening,’ And as I was getting out of bed, I was turning the TV on to try to figure out what had happened.

Immediately, I went into shock and I went into fear. I had what I call the ‘Jonah Spirit.’ I did not want to go to Nineveh and I was trying to find a way not to, but I was quickly given in to the heavenly vision and obeyed and knew I had to do something to get involved in bringing a sense of peace and comfort and healing into our community." 

On turning to faith in times of crisis:

Rabbi Akselrod: I think as people as people go through various stages – understanding or denial or grief  - whatever those stages are, there is a moment where they turn to religion and community for a sense of strength for a re-affirmation of hope in the face of evil and sense of healing.

Gawryn: “What’s really remarkable about an event like this is and for us as religionists – people of faith  - it puts you immediately into the middle of the largest questions that religions deal with: our mortality. Because when we see something like this, we think, ‘what if I had been there? What if my friends were there?’ It makes very vivid the immediacy of the fact that we’re here for a short time and we can go anytime. What is the larger picture that we’re part of? Where are we going? And how do we deal with death?

On what they are going to say to their congregation:

Pastor Ralph: “The focus of the message that we’ll be giving on Sunday will be dealing with hope, will help individuals to understand that God is really a very present help, even in the midst of the struggle of trials and tribulations.

I’m going to deal with three things: One is hope, the other is dealing with reconciliation, and dealing with the power of love and not of fear. So that individuals will understand that love even in the midst of all that we are dealing with supremes high and above anything we can ever imagine.”

On prayer:

Rabbi: Sometimes people misunderstand what prayer is. They think that they can pray to God and God will intervene. So the anger will stem because they don’t understand how God can’t stop or doesn’t stop these instances of mass violence and God has given everyone free will. That means we have a choice between good and evil. That is the world…Acts like this are not to be blamed on God but rather to be blamed on people.

When bad things happen to good people, such as this, it’s not only a reflection of a choice of a single individual but we need to know where to find God. To me, God is in the face of all the people who came forward, risking their lives, being the first responders, placing their bodies on top of loved ones, doing everything they could to save people in a moment’s notice.

In all of those eyes, in all of those hearts, that’s where I see God. 

Pastor Ralph: Prayer is very much an active part of who we are. It’s a way of us connecting with one another and most of all connecting with God. It gives us the opportunity to bring our hurts, our pains, to deal with our celebrations, and to understand that through the communication that we had, once we sent prayers up that blessings really do come down through our faith and our belief that our prayers are being answered.

It moves us forward and it doesn’t hinder us. It does not become passive, but it does encourage us to become engaged in the activity and not just in the silence of having prayer without being active in our faith.

Gawryn: I think there is a premise underlying prayer and that is that God has a hope and desire for how he wants us to be - how He/She wants us to be - and how God wants the world to be and when we engage in prayer what's happening is we're opening up our will to be influenced by the will of the divine. And we begin to act differently, live differently and make the world different. 

On our city’s diversity and bringing people together:

Khalaf: I think Las Vegas is a small big city… that it’s really not six-degrees of separation, it’s one-degree of separation. Everyone knows someone who was affected or impacted by what happened. We’re really, really connected whether it’s through our children, through our work or jobs, through our different activities and that is incredibly helpful. 

From NPR:  Las Vegas Shooting Victims

From Clark County Coroner: Complete List of Victims

Family Assistance Center Line for Shooting Victims. 702-455-AIDE (2433) Locally. 1-833-299-AIDE (2433) Out of State

State of Nevada  has set up a phone line to record remembrances of others lost in the massacre. That number is 725-400-4677 if you would like to share yours. 

For mental health services:

Trauma Intervention Program: Las Vegas

Optum’s Emotional-Support Help Line has been opened to those affected by Sunday’s mass shooting. The toll-free number is  866-342-6892. 

Additional resources are available online at

FirstMed in Las Vegas is also offering free medical and support services, counseling and prescription review and refills for individuals impacted by the attack.

The Nevada Psychology Association has information on free and reduced services for counseling on its  disaster resource page.

MGM Resorts International is also offering help for guests and employees call 702-692-2300 or toll-free at 888-634-7111. 

Culinary Union memberscan also get free mental health assistance at 1-800-363-4874. 

Fahima Khalaf, vice president, Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada; Rabbi Sanford Akselrod, Ner Tamid; Marvin Gawryn, executive director, Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada; Pastor Ralph William, senior pastor, First African Methodist Episcopal church

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.