December in Oxford plunged this community an hour north of Detroit into far deeper darkness than winter.
Residents were shocked and heartbroken by the late November shooting at Oxford High School.
Amid the lingering darkness, Kensington Church in Lake Orion, just south of Oxford, has scheduled its usual range of services for Christmas Eve. The church recently welcomed 1,400 mourners for the funeral of one of the four students who died.
Senior Pastor Craig McGlassion said Friday afternoon he couldn’t stage his church’s usual holiday theater, dramatizing the Christmas story as if nothing outside had changed. McGlassion said the service needed to recognize the pain weighing on its herd. Yet where tragedy had been the focus of recent sermons on Christmas Eve, the service should not focus on it, but should not ignore it either.
“I think it’s time to push back the darkness. We’re really going to celebrate Christmas as the light that comes into humanity,” McGlassion said.
The shooting stunned not just the community, but the entire nation, bringing endless attention to this region of lakes, country roads and semi-rural subdivisions. Notoriety swelled with implications that the suspect’s parents, as well as school authorities, could have prevented the tragedy.
It left residents both defensive and desperate under the harsh gaze of publicity. Now, on Christmas Eve, church leaders have said it’s time to start healing. At nearby St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Father John Carlin aimed to provide refuge from anguish.
“What the community needs now is just to cry and pray. Our parishioners need a safe space for that,” said Carlin, who minutes after the Nov. 30 shooting had rushed to the parking lot of a supermarket in front of the school to console the crowd of panicked students.
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At Kensington Church, whose Lake Orion campus can seat 1,350 people in the auditorium, the Christmas Eve tradition was to go all out. Not this year, McGlassion said.
“We canceled some of the over the top Christmas themed things we had planned. We’re known for our big, high-energy productions, and we’ve moved away from that this year. We are really going to focus on Jesus and his ability to bring the light of goodness and healing to any situation,” he said.
Almost every day, the story of the shooting grew more sinister and sordid. Not only is 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley facing multiple counts of murder and numerous other charges – the incident left four students dead while injuring seven others, including a teacher. Crumbley’s parents are also in custody and facing charges.
Prosecutors say the boy’s parents spent much of their time for years ignoring their son’s troubling signs as they had business and tended to their horses. According to prosecutors, the boy’s mental state deteriorated with the marriage of his parents.
At Kensington Church, where congregants dressed casually, Nicole Stapp wore a sweatshirt that read ‘Oxford Strong’ – the mantra of encouragement that spread after the shooting.
“It’s Christmas. What better opportunity to bring some joy, after all that’s happened,” Stapp said as she strolled through Kensington’s 3 p.m. service with her family. a ninth-grade son in high school and two other children, she said.
“It was a terrible time. It will help,” she said.
The sprawling church was due to hold four services on Christmas Eve, each with around 1,000 worshipers in attendance, ushers said. Each attendee received a candle as people entered.
McGlassion, dressed in a red shirt and blue jeans under a black blazer, knelt onstage for a prayer and then watched the crowd.
“Some of you right now have had the biggest fight of your life. We have seen a disease go around the world.
“You are a few there, I know, you spend Christmas without your husbands.
“And I think of what happened in Oxford a few weeks ago. I don’t think any of us have ever experienced this level of darkness,” he said.
Only faith in God’s message can bring comfort in the midst of overwhelming grief and fear, he said.
A few minutes later, a youth began to circle around, lighting every candle in every outstretched hand. As they did at the Kensington vigil the night of the shooting, people held up the flickering flames in the darkened auditorium. Only this time, instead of shock, the mood was different, as faces shone with the renewed hope of the holidays.
“No matter what, remember the joy,” their pastor said through his microphone, calling on everyone to raise their candles high.
With that came a country rock-infused version of “Joy to the World.” On stage, electric guitars strummed, a bass thudded, a drummer marked the beat and even an amplified violin assisted the singers.
For an hour, then a few, painful memories faded, and the high school tragedy that had happened just a few miles down the road seemed to have happened much further away.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Christmas Eve church services seek to ease pain amid Oxford tragedy