Serving Through Tragedy: Coastal Community Church

On Feb. 14, 2018, Parkland, Florida, was tragically put on the map when a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School entered the school with a gun and began firing, ultimately killing 17. Immediately following the shooting, T.J. McCormick, lead pastor of Coastal Community Church, along with volunteers from the church assembled on the school’s campus to offer support.

“We just showed up and asked, ‘How can we serve you?’” recalls McCormick. “It was not, ‘Here’s what we can do’ but ‘What is it you need?’”

McCormick, who signs every email with the tagline “Loving God, Loving People, & Showing It,” demonstrated that love by diving into difficult service in the midst of horror. The church distributed snacks and water bottles, and put together an impromptu counseling center. They prayed and hugged and prayed some more. In the following days and weeks, they partnered with the school board and city government to organize memorial vigils and other events. More than anything, they were present and available, day after day, week after week.

“We just provided that unconditional support, and I think that gave us a ton of credibility with people and endeared them to Jesus,” says McCormick. “Being with them in the center of all that pain, we’ve done all we can to help folks move forward.”

Coastal Community Church continues to be a source of support. “That was a big deal because we didn’t just show up to the stage but were there in the aftermath,” says McCormick. In fact, they purposefully avoided all publicity, turning down opportunities to talk to the media.

“We weren’t interested in being a face on camera. We were there to serve,” he says. They remained in the background to mostly be a listening ear not only for the students but also their families and other community members who were impacted.

“We’re not a big town. Parkland is just 40,000 people. So everybody knows someone who was shot or injured in that shooting,” says McCormick. “We’re a very tight-knit community.”

According to McCormick, their volunteers are unique, loving and life-giving. “They are real, relevant and authentic,” he says, noting that on an average Sunday morning service, they engage more than 430 volunteers.

“We’ve found that for every one volunteer, three people can attend church,” says McCormick. “They are most definitely the secret sauce to our success.”

They are also the ones who connect to those who are broken, hurting and in need of a listening ear. In the aftermath of the shooting, there is much to sort through, including the political turmoil that surrounds the subject of gun rights and student safety.

“In Parkland, we were so politicized that our focus immediately turned to activism without grief ever happening,” says McCormick, referencing the March for Our Lives rally, a student-led demonstration in support of legislation to prevent gun violence in the U.S. that was held the month after the shooting.

“Now that all the cameras are gone, all the publicity is gone, and all the marching is done, we have to sit and deal with the inner turmoil that we suppressed for so long,” he says. “Now we have to deal with our grief. It’s a messy season to be in.”

McCormick acknowledges the stigma that exists in this country as it relates to admitting one’s true feelings when it comes to grief, anxiety and depression.

“That’s why the statement, ‘It’s OK to not be OK’ is so powerful, because the majority of people are not OK,” says McCormick. “We’re telling people, ‘Listen, Jesus isn’t afraid of your mess. In fact, he’s willing to go right into the middle of it, and we’re willing to go right in the middle of it with you.’”

McCormick acknowledges that many people in the area have found Christ as a direct result of this horrific tragedy.

“We’ve been given a platform that we never asked for or ever wanted,” says McCormick. “Still, we’re grateful to have the opportunity to come alongside our community in these moments and bring perspective, hope and healing.”

—Christy Heitger-Ewing

Parkland, Florida
Lead Pastor: T.J. McCormick
Twitter: @TJ_McCormick
Founded: 2009
Affiliation: Nondenominational
Locations: 1
Attendance: 1,207
Growth in 2018: +634 (111%)
Fastest-Growing: 7

Christy Heitger-Ewing
Christy Heitger-Ewing

Christy Heitger-Ewing is a contributing writer for Outreach magazine. In addition, Christy pens the “Now & Then” column in Cabin Life magazine. She also writes regularly for Christian publications such as Encounter, Insight, and the Lookout. She is the author of Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat.