On the one-year anniversary of a shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in south St. Louis, Emily Schiltz sat in the same place she had a year ago: the pews of St. Margaret of Scotland Church.
On Oct. 24, 2022, a shooter killed 15-year-old Alexzandria Bell and Jean Kuczka, a health and physical education teacher at CVPA. Schiltz’s children, Molly and Ben, attend the adjoining Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience and had just undergone the first-hand trauma of the shooting when they gathered for “A Service of Suffering, Lament, Unity and Hope.”
As Schiltz prayed during the vigil last year, “I thought to myself: There’s a call in this,” she said.
A year later, she was back for the time of prayer, music and reflection, this time as both a parent and part of the steering committee of the parish’s Gun Sense: For the Common Good group.
“A year ago, we were minutes into what is going to be a lifelong journey for both kids and for ourselves, for their parents, for their families, for their friends,” Schiltz said. “In the next few days, the kids began to talk, and the real trauma and really the horrors of what they saw and what they heard became revealed. It put the weight in perspective of what this journey was going to entail, and so it helped even more that we had marked the first night in a sacred space, holding space for it.”
It’s both beautiful and bittersweet to mark one year since the shooting, Schiltz said. “Of course, the horror is that Coach K and Alex didn’t make it out of the building that day. And here we are a year out,” she said. “And a lot of things are going well: We’ve had access to good mental health resources. The kids have a fantastic school community with really strong faculty around them…and so in a lot of ways, life is very bright. So today is moving past the year mark and into whatever the journey continues to look like.”
It has been a constant journey of discernment, prayer, best guesses and research to find the balance of what her children need: More help? Less help? Space? A push? The experience has pushed her deeper in her faith, Schiltz said.
“I can see the ways that this thing that was thrust upon them, without my consent, without my design, without their consent, without their design, has provided them ways to believe in themselves as resilient, as able to survive a difficult thing, as able to find paths to thrive after a difficult thing,” she said. “And to me, that is the heart of faith, that through adversity there can be beauty, there can be wisdom, there can be strength.”
Although she felt the beginnings of a call to action a year ago, Schiltz knew she wasn’t ready at that moment. Maybe in six months, she thought.
“To the week, at the six month mark, one of the members of the Gun Sense committee asked if I would speak about something, and it felt like a divinely inspired moment,” she said. “I just said yes. I didn’t even pay attention (to the specifics) — I just knew this is what I’m being asked to do.”
St. Margaret of Scotland’s Gun Sense group, part of the parish’s Living Justice Ministry, raises awareness about gun violence and advocates for change from the perspective of faith. Prayer is a big component: Every Sunday, a petition in the Prayers of the Faithful prompts prayers for victims of gun violence. In front of the Pieta statue — Mary holding the body of Jesus after His death on the cross — the group keeps a book with the names of people killed by gun violence in St. Louis City and County, updated each week. Once a month, parishioners gather in front of the statue to pray for the listed people, their family and friends
“To see, month after month, the number of people who come and stand at the side altar and pray for strangers they don’t know, never met and have no connection to is just contiually moving and inspiring as far as moving forward and being grounded in a faith community that cares,” Schiltz said.
The Gun Sense group also distributes yard signs that read, “Protect lives, not guns,” and hosts parish events to share information on gun violence and how people can advocate for changes in gun laws through actions like contacting their members of Congress. The group has also started working with other parishes who want to start similar initiatives.
At Gun Sense events, Schiltz has shared her story “as a mother,” she said, giving a minute-by-minute account of what it’s like to be a mom on the day of a school shooting, to get the texts from your children and race to the school, not knowing what you will find. “I hate that that’s my story, but if telling it provides anyone this space to help manifest change, then it needs to be told,” she said. “If me telling it 100 times means any one parent doesn’t have to go through that, then it’s worth it.”
Molly and Ben Schiltz have found a supportive community in the St. Margaret of Scotland youth group, Emily Schiltz said. Youth Minister Emma Grace Johnson led the anniversary prayer vigil, modeling it after last year’s event to give the youth and the greater community space to reflect on how things have changed, how they’re feeling now and how they can continue to take action.
“We don’t just stop here. As Christians, we’re called to continue to be the hands and feet of Jesus and fight against gun violence and stand up against injustices,” Johnson said. “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
The youth group has participated in several events hosted by the Gun Sense group, including a Good Friday prayer service that incorporated prayers for people who had lost their lives to gun violence. Several teens also attended the archdiocesan Gun Violence Summit in July, which included a youth advocacy session.
The biggest thing she heard from her teens right after the shooting was, “Why us? Why, God, does this have to keep going?” Johnson said.
“I think one of the things we’ve come to understand is that there is evil in the world. And evil is not going to go away if we just sit around and talk about it. We have to act. We have to pray. And both of those things are really the core values of our ministry,” she said. “So we’re taking that social action, we’re attending these things where we can learn how to advocate, we’re writing letters to legislators, and then we’re also praying.”
“We focus in on those things that the kids have been able to grasp: We may not understand why, and the evil does not come from God,” Johnson continued. “But we can pray, and we can work, and we can be God’s hands and feet to be a change and to show God to others.”