Salt Lake City congregation of slain student Lauren McCluskey sings, prays and asks for ‘double portion' of God’s peace

(Kathy Stephenson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City's Capital Church.

Still feeling pain and grief over the recent death of Lauren McCluskey, the members of her Salt Lake City church congregation were encouraged Sunday to seek peace from God.

“No matter what storm we are in or what struggle we find ourselves tackling ... when we find ourselves asking, ‘Why? Why? Why?’" guest pastor Margaret Feinberg told the 100-plus worshippers who gathered for the 10 a.m. service at Capital Church, "on those days, we need to ask God to give us a double portion of his peace.”

(courtesy University of Utah) Lauren McCluskey is seen on Aug. 30, 2017, in Salt Lake City.

On Oct. 22, the 21-year-old University of Utah senior and heptathlete was gunned down on campus by convicted sex offender Melvin S. Rowland, who later shot himself to death.

According to McCluskey’s parents, she had dated Rowland for about a month, when she learned he had lied about his name, age and criminal history. She broke off their relationship and, when Rowland began harassing her, she told university police.

Many of her fellow parishioners at Capital Church, 1010 E. 700 South, attended a Wednesday night vigil for McCluskey. The support, said lead pastor, Troy Champ, “was incredible.”

During a second vigil Friday night, to raise awareness about domestic violence, five friends affectionately described McCluskey as loving Jesus, Kanye West, merlot, long talks in her car and karaoke.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Photos of Lauren McCluskey on display as "It's On Us Utah" hosted a celebration of McCluskey's life at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018.

In an obituary published Sunday in The Salt Lake Tribune, her family talked of McCluskey’s faith, saying “Lauren was a Christian.” She grew up attending Community Congregational United Church of Christ in Pullman, Wash. Besides attending Capital Church in Salt Lake City, she also was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the U.

“She was a deep, independent thinker," the obituary said, “with an interest in philosophy and a strong sense of right and wrong."

On Sunday, Champ told the congregation that he originally had planned to discuss Bible verses during the service, but his week went off course after the death of one of his flock. When Feinberg, a Utah pastor and Christian writer, offered to speak, he welcomed the offer.

Feinberg, who is doing research for a book, talked of her recent travels to learn about olive trees and olive oil and the role the tree and fruit play in the Bible. She hoped the symbolism would help those who may be grieving for McCluskey or any loved one who has died.

She pointed to the story of Noah in Genesis Chapter 8. For months, Noah, whose name means “comfort,” and his family had been living on the ark, “a zookeeper’s nightmare with rotting stench and crowded conditions," Feinberg explained. A reminder that “sometimes God leads us to a place of discomfort.”

But after the storms that caused the great flood had passed, Noah sent out a dove, which returned with a freshly plucked olive leaf in its beak, a sign that water had receded from the earth.

In that occurrence, she said, God provided two — or double — symbols of peace: the dove and the olive branch.

A second Bible story, also laden with references to olives and oil, takes place on the night of Jesus' betrayal when he went to the Garden of Gethsemane, which is the Hebrew word for a place to press oil.

“When we find ourselves in a struggle, we are not alone,” she said. “God is always waiting to give us a portion of his peace. Sometimes we forget that, but that is what he longs to do.”

Earlier in the service, associate pastor Suzanne Champ, pastor Troy Champ’s wife, mentioned McCluskey in singing and praying “for those of us here with heavy hearts."

“Step into our pain and offer comfort,” she prayed, “And let us experience your grace and goodness.”