Like a devastating earthquake, last week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino continues to produce aftershocks that keep Southern Californians in a state of unease. One of those shock waves rolled through an Advent service at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena on Sunday evening.
All Saints is located just a couple of blocks off Colorado Avenue, the route of the annual Tournament of Roses Parade, and directly across the street from Pasadena’s monumental, Spanish-style City Hall. Just as City Hall could stand easily on a plaza in Mexico City or Madrid, the Gothic Revival church would not look at all out of place in Canterbury or London. However, unlike the average Anglican church or a great many mainline Protestant churches in the United States, All Saints is not just a lovely edifice with no one inside. The church boasts a diverse, 4,000-member congregation. And ministering to these many people is a powerhouse pastor, the Rev. J. Edwin Bacon Jr.
There is not a whiff of the caricatured, timid Anglican priest about Ed Bacon. He is a solidly built man who preaches a muscular, progressive Christianity that is deeply engaged in social justice and service to society’s marginalized people. On Sunday night, though, when the folks in the crowded pews looked up to the man in the pulpit, he seemed especially somber. The stole around Bacon’s shoulders was black, not a cheery Christmas red or green. The meditation he had prepared to share with the congregants was titled “Hope Against Darkness” and it contained fresh, tragic news.
While he was conducting the morning service earlier in the day, Bacon said, his wife had received a telephone call from his second cousin, a woman with whom he had attended high school back home in Jesup, Ga. The cousin was calling to see if Bacon could fly to Georgia at the end of the week to officiate at a funeral. The funeral was for her 45-year-old son, Shannon Johnson. He had been at a holiday party with co-workers from the San Bernardino County Public Health Department on Wednesday morning when two people with assault rifles charged in and started shooting indiscriminately. Johnson was one of the 14 victims who did not make it out alive.
A Los Angeles Times biography of Johnson says he was “a Christian who dabbled in Hinduism” and enjoyed talking about Islam with a fellow health inspector named Syed Rizwan Farook, the now-infamous, self-radicalized Muslim who left the holiday party and returned with guns blazing. The message at the heart of Bacon’s meditation Sunday night dealt with how people of good will should cope with such malignant
darkness. It was dissonant with the superficial charms of the holidays but, after all, the Christmas story is about a baby born to two humble people denied refuge on a dark night in an era of oppression and cruelty. Hanukkah, too, focuses on light prevailing against darkness in a time of conflict. So, Bacon’s words were entirely relevant for this particular moment.
What he offered was hope. Not the hope of simple optimism or upbeat platitudes, but hope as a defiant act. A hope that confronts the bleak shadows of terrorism, murderous ideology and inhumanity with no expectation that anything will be easy and the certainty that more suffering and sacrifice will be demanded. A hope based on the belief that human beings, created in God’s image, will, in time, assert their true compassionate identity against those who have betrayed the better angels of their nature.
Bacon said his cousin’s son expressed that kind of defiant hope in the last moment of his life. As the killers sprayed the room with bullets, Shannon Johnson wrapped his left arm around a co-worker, 27-year-old Denise Peraza, and shielded her, saying, “I got you.” One bullet hit Peraza in the back, but Johnson took most of the shots. Later, Peraza’s sister would write about Johnson on her Facebook page, saying, “This angel of a man was sitting next to my sister when the shooting happened. He helped protect her from the bullets and we are so grateful for his heroic love.”