On March 14, students in thousands of schools walked out of class to commemorate the deaths of those killed in Parkland, Florida. Driven by a desire to show support for their fellow students, several schools here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee creatively addressed the issue through a Catholic lens. With the support of teachers and administrators, students were empowered to respond to the tragedy in peaceful and prayerful ways.
Students at Dominican High School in Whitefish Bay, led by Campus Minister Nate Friday planned “Peace in Our Schools.” Since they can’t go to Florida, the DHS family comforted the students through prayer.
“Various members in our community have been shaken by yet another school shooting. Coupled with the inspirational courage shown by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas as they advocate for what they believe in, our community felt called to respond with one of the best tools that we, as a Sinsinawa Dominican school have: prayer,” said Friday.
Junior Margo Cushman said, “As a school of faith, it was important to bring God into the picture.” She and her fellow campus ministry members decided that “staying outside was not enough.”
The students designed a service that was held in multiple classrooms in order to create intimate settings for reflection and prayer. Students led the services, reading Scripture and petitions. Adult leaders read a reflection. All students then silently walked into the hallway, held hands in a continuous chain throughout the school and recited the Our Father. It was sophomore Ben Jelacic’s idea for the prayer chain. He thought it might be crazy but it was received enthusiastically. He believes faith should be involved in everyday life.
“The power of prayer is limitless. Every time we face a troubling situation in our neighborhood, country or our hallway that challenges us, or even something that rocks our very foundation, I hear the words of the Sinsinawa Dominicans founder, Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli ring out, that we are called ‘To go where the work is great and difficult.’ We can serve, we can comfort, we can advocate and no matter how far away we are, we can always bring about change through prayer,” Friday said.
Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, under the guidance of President Donna Bembenek, designed “Leading With Our Faith.” Instead of walking out, the school took time for faith-based, community-building activities. Students were offered several ways to engage via praying the rosary, meditation, music, chalk drawings or writing encouraging cards to middle school students. The activities were designed by students to help others feel loved, appreciated and welcomed.
“They wanted to do something productive and positive,” Bembenek said.
Matt Bruce, a former Columbine High School student, spoke to the students about his experience in April 1999 and how it affected his faith journey.
“The kids were really engaged and found his message of love, engagement and support of one another so timely,” said Bembenek.
At St. Joan Antida High School in Milwaukee, students walked out in prayer. After a prayer service for victims of various school shootings and all victims of gun violence, the faculty and students processed around the eastside, making stops to call out the names of victims in litany. They ended at the school praying for peace.
“The students wanted to participate in the school walkout and we believed doing this in prayer best represented us as a school and faith community,” said Head of School Paul Gessner. School administration, the campus minister, teachers and students were involved in planning the experience.
“We felt being an example of prayer and love was a direct challenge to the force of evil that exists in each of these school shootings. Calling on God to save us and bless those in need of healing is the only answer we have to face evil,” said Gessner.
In response to comments that prayer is not enough, Gessner said, “Prayer is action and is always enough because it leads us to the right course of action in our lives.”
The result was powerful. Some members of the neighborhood expressed support of their prayer and one joined the procession. Students stayed silent the entire time even as they walked past a group of protesters at a nearby school. Gessner noticed a sense of comfort and calm in the students that helped with the uncertainty many were experiencing.
It wasn’t only high schools that responded in a distinctly Catholic way.
St. Thomas Aquinas Academy, a K4 through eighth grade school within the Seton Catholic Schools network held a “Call for Peace” prayer service created and led by eighth-graders Noel Rubalcava, Mary Cvikel and Avary Hamilton. Students and families gathered at St. Veronica Parish for a 17-minute service to honor the victims with prayer, silence and bell ringing.
“The students also introduced the hashtag #Our17 that calls all students to show love and compassion to each other. On the playground, students signed their name in chalk as a symbol of solidarity and commitment to promoting peace, positivity and inclusivity,” said Gina Styer, communications manager for Seton Catholic Schools.
At St. Robert School in Shorewood, the names of the victims were read out at 2:21 p.m., the time of the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting, followed by silence and a prayer that they rest in peace. Several eighth-grade students were involved in the planning.
“Those who cause gun violence have serious issues that we as loving Christians need to find ways to resolve. This all starts with prayer and a deep sense of compassion to all those who mourn, those who suffer, those who are spiritually and emotionally wounded — they are all part of our Catholic family,” said Andy Brehm, middle school religion teacher.
In Burlington, at St. Mary School, elementary students participated in a prayer service for peace. Each grade shared a prayer centered around peace and building a better community.