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In Santa Clarita, clergy struggle to explain the unexplainable

Two people kneel at a makeshift memorial
Mourners at a makeshift memorial for victims of the Saugus High School shooting.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Hours after the shooting at Saugus High School, a group of preteens arrived at a Santa Clarita synagogue for their regular Thursday afternoon religious education class. They came with questions.

“Why did he shoot other people,” asked one 12-year-old at Temple Beth Ami. “I can understand someone committing suicide if they felt so sad. But why did he shoot the other people?”

Rabbi Mark Blazer said he talked to the students about the complexities of mental health and the need to reach out with compassion to those in pain. But, reflecting on it later, he observed that the issues that confounded the preteens “frankly are the same questions that we adults have.”

In reeling, grief-stricken Santa Clarita this week, it often fell to clergy to try to explain the seemingly unexplainable — the killing of two teenagers and wounding of three others by a classmate who then took his own life.

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One of those killed, Gracie Anne Muehlberger, 15, and two girls that were injured were part of a high school ministry at Real Life, a nondenominational Christian church with 7,000 congregants in the Santa Clarita area, according to a pastor.

The 16-year-old shooter participated in a weeklong vacation Bible school as an elementary school student at another large Santa Clarita church, Grace Baptist, according to a pastor. Some of the victims attended the same summer program.

In the wake of the shooting, Grace Baptist’s campus became a virtual command post. Law enforcement questioned dozens of witnesses on its grounds while grief counselors met with students. Later, the faculty of the high school had an emotional reunion in one of its buildings.

“This event will be a dividing line in our community, just like 9/11 was ... for the nation,” said Senior Pastor David Hegg.

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Known for its good public schools, low crime rate and small-town feel, Santa Clarita has long been a top choice for law enforcement officers and firefighters to buy homes. Blazer said the shooting upended a sense of security many parents had enjoyed since moving to the area.

“Safety and schools that are top ranked ... that’s why we live here,” Blazer said. “It hit at the core of the community.”

As the lead pastor at Real Life, where some of the victims worshipped, Rusty George said he came away from conversations with the grieving struck by the firmness of their faith.

“People further away from the situation wonder ‘Why?’ and might even blame God,” George said. “But the people who have been directly affected don’t blame God. They lean on God.”

In his Sunday sermon, he said, he planned to urge congregants to reject blame or quick fixes and embrace a three-step approach to “soul care” — breathe, mourn and pray.

“We are the most prayed for city on the planet right now,” he said.

At one of Santa Clarita’s large Catholic parishes, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Msgr. Craig Cox called tragedies like the shooting “among the toughest of all things to preach on.”

He said he found encouragement in one of the Scripture readings prescribed for this Sunday, a passage from the Prophet Malachi that concludes, “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

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“More important than words at a time like this is just hugs and tears and prayer,” Cox said. “Explanations don’t cover everything.”

Some clergy said they also planned to talk about the shooter’s mother, a widow. Hegg of Grace Baptist said a portion of the money collected at services this weekend for victims would go to her.

“His mom is certainly a victim in this. She lost her husband ... now she’s lost a son,” he said. “She is going to be in some sense a pariah in the community by unfeeling people.”

Community leaders and clergy are scheduled to speak at a community vigil at 7 p.m. Sunday in Central Park.


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