The city that prides itself on being "too busy to hate" stopped at noon today to pray at the Peachtree Road United Methodist Church and to reflect on violence that has left 23 people dead in the area since July 12.
Only six days ago, a gunman killed nine people and wounded a dozen others in two busy stock trading offices in the nearby Buckhead financial district. Inside the church today, there was no mistaking the painful effort to find some hope in the wake of tragedy.
In addition to the families of victims of the Buckhead shootings by Mark O. Barton, who also fatally bludgeoned his wife and two children in Stockbridge, relatives of other victims of recent killings sought solace and answers at the memorial candle-lighting service. Six family members were murdered July 12 in Atlanta by a stepfather, who fatally shot himself, and two Cobb County police officers were killed July 23 by a homeowner who later was killed by SWAT team members.
"The entire city desperately wants to know why bad things happen to good people," said Mayor William Campbell, speaking before a congregation that included eight pews of relatives of the victims among the crowd of 750 people.
The city's "too busy to hate" slogan initially referred to race relations. But the 20 murders were not motivated by any apparent racial animus; the motives remain unknown because all three gunmen also are dead.
"Why is it no one, including our innocent children, can escape evil being visited upon them?" Campbell said of the killings, which took the lives of six children.
In a service that focused on the recent Buckhead slayings, speakers acknowledged the loss of family members of various faiths. Rabbi Robert Ichay spoke briefly in Hebrew in remembering Allen Tenenbaum, president of the Congregation Or Ve Shalom. Shams Bhaloo rendered the lessons of the Muslim faith's Koran on behalf of slain Dean Delawalla, and Amitabh Sharma talked about the 10 signs of the Hindu concept of good karma for the family of slain Vadewattee Muralidhara. All three were day traders at the brokerage offices attacked in Buckhead.
The church's senior minister, the Rev. Don Harp, quoted author Ernest Hemingway. "Life breaks us all," Harp said, "and continually comes forward at the broken places."
The message from Harp was not entirely spiritual. "It is harder to get a prescription filled than to buy a handgun," he said to a chorus of "amens" from a congregation fully aware that 17 of the 20 murders occurred with handguns.
Family members said they were grateful for the occasion to share their grief. "Even though we've had our service, perhaps as a group this puts a closure to the dreadful event," said Feroz Delawalla, brother of Dean Delawalla. "Hopefully, we can look to tomorrow."
Another family member was less certain about the future. "I don't know if I'll ever have closure out of all this," said Todd Cline, a nephew of Joseph Dessert Jr., also a slain day trader. "But it's comforting to know I'm not the only person who feels this way. We all have to get better sooner or later."
Afterward, Campbell said the "city needed something cathartic," which is why he chose to co-host the memorial service with Harp at the prominent church near Buckhead. But Campbell said he also believes the nation needs catharsis in the wake of random killings.
"I think there's a casualness with which people respond to these tragic occurrences because they happen so often," making people numb, said Campbell, citing the Littleton, Colo., shootings.
"It's happening all over the country. We've got to look deep into the psyche in America and find out about where all this rage is coming from. We've come through a terrible time in the history of this city. But it's not Atlanta's problem. It's the nation's problem."