Clergy of different faiths, joined by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, delivered messages of hope and unity Thursday before more than 1,300 people gathered at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park.
“A pall has been cast over our great nation,” Holder said. “We gather today not in joy, but in solemn reflection.”
The overall message, however, was focused on the power of love and unity to combat hatred and evil. The service, at the Lewis and Shirley White Theatre, came only four days after three people were gunned down, allegedly by a man who authorities say is an avowed racist and anti-Semite guided by his hatred of Jews.
Fourteen-year-old Reat Underwood, a freshman at Blue Valley High School, and his grandfather, physician William Corporon, 69, were shot shortly after 1 p.m. Sunday while they were in a vehicle in the parking lot of the Jewish Community Center. Corporon had brought his grandson to the center to audition for an “American Idol”-like singing competition.
Teresa “Terri” LaManno, 53, of Kansas City, was shot and killed soon afterward at the nearby Village Shalom living center, where the mother of three had gone to visit her mother, suffering from dementia.
Police quickly arrested 73-year-old Frazier Glenn Cross Jr., also known as F. Glenn Miller Jr., of Aurora, Mo., a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. None of the victims was Jewish.
The mood of Thursday’s event was solemn throughout. Three white candles sat atop a table covered in black cloth beneath large black-and-white photographs of the victims.
“Every, every alleged hate crime, no matter who the intended target is, is an affront to who we are, and who we always have been, as both a country and as a people,” Holder said. “These acts cannot be ignored.”
He continued, saying that “although our hearts are truly broken, all Americans, all Americans stand with the people of Overland Park, of Leawood and of Kansas City. We are united in our condemnation of this heinous attack.”
He said that the way the community has come together in support in the aftermath of a terrible day is a story of “light emerging from terrible darkness.”
“I know it can seem at times that the world is irreparably broken, that it is fractured beyond repair,” Holder said. “But all of us, here in this moment, surrounded by the people we love … we are a testament to the limitless desire in this country for healing, for compassion and, ultimately, for peace.”
In the message to grieving families, he said, “We will support you … not only in sorrow, but in strength.”
The Service of Unity & Hope began shortly before 10 a.m. with welcoming comments from the Jewish Community Center’s president and chief executive officer, Jacob Schreiber. Besides Holder, other political guests included the Israeli consul general; U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat; and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican.
Clergy representing both the Jewish and Christian faiths spoke at the gathering, led by Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah.
He noted that only a few miles away, LaManno was being laid to rest and that on Friday, services for Reat and his grandfather would also be held.
“Why? Why did such a tragedy happen to three good souls? Why do bad things happen to three good people? We do not know,” Nemitoff said.
But he said that it was not God who caused this pain, but rather, “God, like us, is weeping for this loss.”
Mindy Corporon, whose son and father were killed Sunday, did not attend the service. Since Sunday, Corporon, who also has a younger son, has faced her tragedy with impressively gracious and calm comportment, many have noted.
Her pastor, the Rev. Adam Hamilton of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, who spoke next, said Corporon told him that returning to the community center and the site of her son’s and father’s murders would have been too painful at this time. It was too soon, Hamilton said. He added that the family has been sustained since Sunday in three ways.
First, he said, is a deep and solid faith that the death of her father and son is not the end of their story.
“Mindy has expressed absolutely, positively that her father and son are in God’s arms,” Hamilton said.
Second, strength has come not only from the prayers and support of a loving community, but also prayers and messages of support from all over the globe.
Third, Hamilton said, is the Corporon family’s hope and belief that something positive might arise from the tragedy. Corporon already had offered up her son’s tissue and organs for possible donation.
“You have heard Mindy say, ‘We want something good to come from this,’ ” Hamilton said. “This evil can’t have the final say in this situation.”
The Rev. Stephen Cook from St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Kansas City, where LaManno was a member, had been scheduled to offer words in her memory at the service. But instead, at the same time as the interfaith service, he was attending the LaManno funeral. The Rev. Charles Rowe from St. Peter’s took his place, offering words of comfort and leading those attending in a psalm.
From Country Club Christian Church, the Rev. Glen Miles spoke of how there is no real answer to why such tragedies occur, but he affirmed the message of the morning, citing the words spoken by a famed minister, the late William Sloane Coffin, after the death of Coffin’s son:
“ ‘The first of all the hearts to break at the news of my son’s tragic death was the heart of God,’ ” Miles quoted Coffin.
Miles continued, linking the holy days of both Jews and Christians to the sad killings of three innocent people.
“On Sunday, Palm Sunday, the day before Passover, the first of all our hearts to break was God’s,” he said. “This is the good news of the Bible, this is the good news of the Jewish and Christian faiths, because it is the broken heart of God who is always willing to walk with us through the shadows. To new light, new hope, new love.”
The service ended as solemnly as it began, but with a symbolic show of unity. All clergy, elected officials and members of law enforcement were asked to gather on stage as three candles were lit in memory of William Corporon, his grandson Reat Underwood and Terri LaManno.
Then everyone in the theater rose and put their arms around one another as a cantor sang “Oseh Shalom.” Side by side, candles lit, the crowd swayed and sang.