Waukesha faith leaders emphasize hope, healing in sermons one week after Christmas parade tragedy

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A week after the Waukesha parade tragedy, area faith leaders Sunday offered messages of hope, forgiveness and healing.

In their first Sunday services since a driver plowed an SUV through the Waukesha Christmas Parade, killing six and injuring more than 60, pastors addressed the grief and anger many in the community feel and encouraged people to turn to their faith for wisdom and comfort.

The Rev. Christian Marien of Ascension Lutheran Church in Waukesha, who serves as a volunteer police chaplain, spoke in his sermon about rushing to the parade and praying with the injured and dying who lay on stretchers and in the street.

"It is the world we should not live in," Marien said. "It is the world falling apart in front of our eyes, and still, we are here, and so is God."

Speaking on the the first Sunday of Advent, meant to be a joyous time of preparation for Christmas, pastors focused on finding light in a dark world. At three Waukesha churches, lighting the first candle of the Advent wreath during the service offered congregations a tangible symbol of the message.

Marien invited his congregation to offer their support to others who are struggling, lighting metaphorical candles for them.

At St. William Catholic Church, the Rev. Matthew Widder focused on starting anew. Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical calendar year.

"What does that first candle mean? We begin again," said Widder, who marched in the parade with the Catholic Community of Waukesha, a community of four parishes. He was not injured.

"Some of us might begin with deep trauma and a sense of still feeling that uneasiness and sadness. That's OK," Widder said. "Some of us begin again with wheelchairs, with walkers, some of us still in the hospital now."

More: 'That's what being in this community means:' Waukesha Catholics come together in mourning after tragedy

Joining Widder at Mass was the Rev. Patrick Heppe, who was struck by the SUV and suffered a concussion. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has said several parishioners and school children marching with the four-parish group also were injured.

Addressing the parishioners at the start of Mass, Heppe was upbeat. He said he has been left with ringing in his ears and bouts of vertigo, and that he spent a night in the hospital, but he's grateful for the outpouring of support.

"This community has come together," he said. "Tragedy and pain and suffering has really cemented the unity that we have here in Waukesha."

Just before he was hit by the SUV, Heppe was near the front of the group, in the lineup just ahead of the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies — a local dance group for grandmothers that had four members killed in the incident.

"I was holding the banner at one particular point and, the next thing I knew, I was face-up on the pavement and people were asking me if I'm OK," Heppe said.

Two young brothers who were injured and attended Mass at St. William received a round of applause. One attended the children's liturgy in his wheelchair.

In his homily, Widder pledged never to forget what he called moments of grace amid the pain of the last week: injured people who forgave the driver, hospital staff who exuded love as they treated hurt children.

More: What we know about the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy

Churchgoers begin trying to heal

At Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Waukesha, the Rev. Jason Hacker reminded the congregation of Fred Rogers' famous advice to "look for the helpers."

He encouraged people to "look for the good" among the tragedy and find safety in their faith. The church was in the parade lineup roughly 10 spots behind the last group known to have been seriously injured.

"We cannot be ruled by anger or hate or fear or doubt. Focus on the good," Hacker said.

Members of the church rushed to help those struck by the vehicle, Hacker said.

As people try to move on from the trauma of the tragedy, their faith will be essential to answering some of the tough questions they now face, he said.

"The questions of 'why, God,' 'how, God?', 'where's God?' reveal the anguish of doubt and despair that overwhelms the spirit and the soul. Those aren't head things. Those are spiritual things," he said.

Hacker acknowledged the difficulty of healing from such an experience.

"We're the ones who have to drive down Main Street again, looking as clean as it did before," he said. "We know this is going to take time."

Lead Pastor Rev. Christian Marien leads an activity with kids Sunday on the importance of Advent and hope, especially during moments of tragedy, Sunday at Ascension Lutheran Church in Waukesha.
Lead Pastor Rev. Christian Marien leads an activity with kids Sunday on the importance of Advent and hope, especially during moments of tragedy, Sunday at Ascension Lutheran Church in Waukesha.

Marien, at Ascension Lutheran Church, recounted his experience as a police chaplain in the immediate aftermath of the parade. When he rushed to the scene, the first person Marien saw was a man on a stretcher who said his name was Bill. It would turn out to be Wilhelm "Bill" Hospel, 81, one of the six people who died from their injuries.

Marien and Hospel prayed together, and Marien moved to each person on a stretcher around him. Then, he said, he looked up and noticed police officers standing at certain points all the way down the street.

Each was standing guard over a body, Marien realized, and he went to each one to tend to them.

"It felt like the end of the world last Sunday — truth be told, all week," Marien said. But "God is here, just as God has been present all along."

Faith communities emphasize unity

As Waukesha Christians celebrated the first Sunday of Advent with mixed feelings, the Jewish community found itself in a similar position: Hanukkah began Sunday evening with celebrations across the Milwaukee area.

Volunteer hospital chaplain Rabbi Levi Brook, from the Jewish organization Chabad of Waukesha, said Hanukkah's message of light over darkness is an important one for those struggling with the parade tragedy.

Brook consoled families at a Waukesha hospital last Sunday and said it's important for the wider community to band together to heal.

"We will beat this together, but we need each other," he said.

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, center left, and Father Matthew Widder, center right, make a stop along the procession route on Main Street to say a few prayers Sunday in Waukesha.
Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, center left, and Father Matthew Widder, center right, make a stop along the procession route on Main Street to say a few prayers Sunday in Waukesha.

The Catholic community saw value in that togetherness. Also Sunday, dozens gathered for a prayer procession led by Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki. The archbishop led those gathered along the parade route, stopping seven times along the way.

At a memorial at Veterans Park in Waukesha, Listecki asked God for his presence, to purify the area where evil was committed and to "make that place whole."

"We pray that for the whole Waukesha community, but we pray that also for our nation — to make us whole," Listecki said. "We must turn to the one who can turn anything that's evil into something which is a testimony to God's presence and goodness."

Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly and the City Council are asking residents to light a blue light outside their homes throughout the holidays as a symbol of unity, after they held a moment of silence at 4:39 p.m. Sunday.

Council members have a limited supply of blue lights to give to residents. Lights also are available, in limited supply for free, at Mary Jane’s, 335 W. Main St.; Burlap and Lace Marketplace, 272 W. Main St.; Almont Gallery, 342 W. Main St.; Martha Merrell Books and Toys, 231 W. Main St.; Village Collective, 808 N. Grand Ave.; Paws for a Moment Pet Spa and Boutique, 316 South St.; and River’s End Gallery, 380 W. Main St.

Hannah Kirby of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or scarson@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy: Pastors' sermons focus on hope

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