Holding on to one another and bowing their heads in reverence, more than 50 people prayed together in front of the Allen Street Gates on Monday afternoon, remembering the victims of Thursday’s deadly shootings, looking for healing, and asking for guidance.
The people who showed up to the vigil were there for different reasons. Some were there to mourn, some there to show support for the community, and others to find solutions so events like that which unfolded Thursday evening, leaving four people dead and another injured, don’t happen again.
“I just feel a little lost, actually, because I don’t totally know what the solution is,” Michele Hamilton, who lives near where the shootings took place, said. “We need a different way of expressing or dealing with issues, more sensible gun regulation but also mental health, but I don’t know totally what the answer is or what formula it should be.”
Others at the vigil also echoed Hamilton’s thoughts. Jesse Barlow and Shih-In Ma, both of State College, came to show support for the community, and to seek gun control reform. Both are longtime State College residents, Barlow a Borough Council member.
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Barlow and Ma are confident the State College community will rebound from the tragedy last week in which 21-year-old Jordan Witmer shot three people at P.J. Harrigan’s, killing one instantly and injuring two others, before fleeing, breaking into a home on Tussey Lane, shooting and killing the 83-year-old homeowner before turning the gun on himself.
However, they are afraid the community will forget what happened without enacting any change.
“We have legal power to make these shootings far more rare than they are, but we don’t use it and I don’t think our society has any excuse for it,” Barlow said. “This isn’t something we should regard as normal, this isn’t something we should regard as the price of freedom. It’s an infringement on our freedom.”
Gun control was an overarching theme at Monday’s Standing by the Gates for Justice vigil, hosted by 3rd Way Collective, Ni Ta Nee NOW and Moms Demand Action Centre Region Chapter, as people stood out in the frigid temperatures with signs that read: “Disarm!” “Enough is enough!” and “Cars have more regulations than guns.”
However, faith and healing — and remembrance — were also sewn into Monday’s gathering.
Candles were lit and the flame passed from person to person, as Ben Wideman, pastor with 3rd Collective, led the group in a moment of silence remembering those affected by the tragedy:
The employees of P.J. Harrigan’s and the Ramada Inn and Conference Center. First responders, law enforcement and medical professionals. Nicole Abrino, the single gunshot survivor, and her family as they mourn and heal. Those whose lives have been taken forever: 19-year-old Steven Beachy, his father, Dean Beachy, and 83-year-old George McCormick, a longtime State College and Penn State community member. And Jordan Witmer, the Bellefonte grad who perpetuated the crimes, and his family as they make sense of what happened.
People held hands, and wrapped their arms around each other. A group of women wrapped their arms tightly around one another, as their eyes welled with tears.
Grief counselors were present at the vigil, including Tides Program Director Evelyn Wald, to offer support for those who would accept it. The Tides Program primarily works with grieving children and their families, but Wald said that when tragedy happens, their counselors make themselves available to the overall community.
“The very first thing is to know you’re not alone and there’s nothing wrong with, even though you may not have known any of these people, you can still feel for them and what happened,” she said.
Less than a week after the crimes, the wounds were still fresh for those who came to mourn. Flowers and signs were placed along the cast-iron gates that marks the gateway from downtown State College to Penn State University, remembering those lives lost.
Whether people came to mourn, to try to make sense of a senseless tragedy, or to advocate for change, they all came with the intent to heal, as a community and individually.
“I think certainly something like what happened this evening, to draw people together and say, ‘this didn’t just affect those families that were involved but it affected all of us,’ ” Wald said about how people can start that healing process. “This to me is actually the beginning of healing — allowing people to connect to each other and finding resources, whether it’s faith, communities, Tides or just one another, to band together and say ‘let’s support each other.’
“The very first thing is to know you’re not alone.”