30 May 2012
#WoburnUnites Candlelight Vigil: Social Media and Community Healing
What you need to know is that just nine months prior, the day after Christmas, a Woburn police officer, Jack Maguire, was shot and killed under very similar circumstances - while intercepting suspects from a jewelry robbery. We were also just days away from the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The robbery and shooting had brought back the painful memories of Jack’s death to our collective consciousness. The memory of 9/11 loomed as images of that day were continuously replayed in the media. We were emotionally raw.
I was up early the next morning, wondering how, as a pastor and neighbor, to support the community in the wake of our shock and grief.
Planning and publicity
I reached out via Facebook chat to community leader, David Crowley. In about 30 minutes we had sketched out a plan for a candlelight vigil on the town common. For the next two days, David and I had an open Facebook chat window. We communicated in real time as David reached out to government officials and community leaders and I reached out to our local clergy. We drafted a letter to the community to invite people to the event. When we received approval from the Mayor - a gracious gesture, given all the pressure on the city and that any public gathering would require additional police presence - we posted the letter on my church website and I created a Facebook event page and we started inviting people. The local papers and news outlets reprinted the letter to help get the word out.
We chose a twitter hashtag for the vigil, #WoburnUnites, which, in a sign of the digital times, eventually became the name for the vigil. We also used #Woburn, the hashtag we use for general Woburn information and which was used by neighbors and news media throughout the day of the manhunt. We used the Facebook event page to share information about the on-going investigation and to communicate details about the event, reminding everyone that the vigil was BYOC - bring your own candle.
In turn, people shared their prayers and well wishes for the officer that was shot, as well as words of encouragement and support for our community. We had around 100 people RSVP to the event of Facebook.
We held the vigil five days later on Sunday night, September 11th - the night of the 10th anniversary. And so, the event became not only a response to recent local events, but also a way of marking the moment as a nation. Estimates of those in attendance ranged from 200-300 people. It was covered by three local television stations (see below) and all the Woburn news outlets. David welcomed everyone. The mayor and state representative gave words of encouragement, and local clergy and members of the community prayed and read Scripture. We sang God Bless America. We shared in coffee donated by Starbucks at a local church afterward. See the full program here.
The vigil was a holy moment, which was made possible, in large part, to social media - the speed and breadth of communication, the connections it had helped to create and strengthen over time. We were able to coordinate and get the word out in a short period of time - and not just share information, but to interact with our neighbors. We didn’t have to wait until the vigil to comfort and console one another. We could do it on Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, we also leveraged our various off-line connections to pull things together.
The #WoburnUnites Vigil was an incarnational moment of digital ministry. But it is important to note that it was preceded and made possible by many smaller incarnational moments of a local tweet up a couple months prior, and numerous informal one-to-one and small group meets-ups, as people in our town moved back and forth from the screen to face-to-face encounters. These smaller moments of incarnation - meetings over coffee, running into each other at kids’ soccer games, as well as interactions online created the network - and a level of familiarity and trust - which made this kind of larger event possible.
Similarly, I found that my consistent, authentic presence in social media over time as a pastor helped me to become known in the community - I friend or follow community leaders - so that when this incident happened, I was a trusted person within the town. You might expect this to be the case anyway, by virtue of my position in the church, irregardless of social media. Not so. My authority to act in this situation, if that’s even the right word, actually came from tending relationship over time - something that I was able to do in a much shorter period of time through Facebook and Twitter because I could reach and interact with so many people at once.
It’s so important that the church is engaged in the everyday life of the community—that people don’t just think everything we do is on Sunday and in the church. Being present on Twitter as a pastor allowed me to share God’s compassion during a very difficult moment for our town. Gathering in person for prayer and song out on the town common rather than inside a church building reinforced the assurance that God is present on the very streets that were visited by violence just a few days before. And, through David Crowley’s efforts, and the assistance of elected officials, clergy, and community members, we were able to realize something of the incarnational potential that is in every one of these engagements—whether they’re on- or offline.