Churches keep up the pressure to reduce gun violence

Parishioners at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Lynn, Massachusetts, observed the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath by creating “heavenly hosts” as part of an art installation at the church. Hung in the sanctuary, each “host” commemorates victims of gun or other violence, or other people the creators wished to honor. Photo/Jason Cruz

Parishioners at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Lynn, Massachusetts, observed the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath by creating “heavenly hosts” as part of an art installation at the church. Hung in the sanctuary, each “host” commemorates victims of gun or other violence, or other people the creators wished to honor. Photo/Jason Cruz

[Episcopal News Service] When Episcopal clergy and laity gather March 25 for a Holy Week Way of the Cross procession in Washington, D.C., it will be the latest in a host of church activities aimed at highlighting and combating gun violence. Across the nation, Episcopalians have lobbied legislators to support gun-control laws, visited gun venders, hosted gun buybacks, created artwork memorializing gun-violence victims, preached about gun violence and observed a Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath.

The current emphasis on reducing gun violence stems from the Dec. 14 fatal shooting of 20 pupils and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

The Diocese of Connecticut’s bishops partnered with Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde and other members of the Diocese of Washington in planning the March 25 procession, which more than 20 bishops and other Episcopalians from around the country are expected to join.

“We are taking our witness to our nation’s capital to say to our political leaders and to our country that we will no longer be silent while violence permeates our world, our society, our church, our homes and ourselves,” Connecticut Bishops Ian Douglas, James Curry and Laura Ahrens wrote to their diocese. “The walk, and particularly the reflections at each station, will reflect our commitment to transformational change and the proclamation of God’s hope to the world.”

In Chicago, where gun violence long has been a concern, Episcopalians from across northern Illinois and their partners in more than 65 faith-based and civic organizations will participate March 22 in the second annual CROSSwalk, a four-mile procession to remember Chicago’s murdered youth.

“We simply cannot continue to ignore the heart-wrenching loss of young life that occurs with such horrifying frequency in Chicago and other cities in northern Illinois,” Chicago Bishop Jeff Lee said in a press release. “CROSSwalk calls us to pray, to build relationships and to act as though lives depend on us. And they do.”

In Washington, D.C., Washington National Cathedral partnered with Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence to present a series of events March 14-17 to mark a Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend. Religious leaders, Congress members, gun-control advocates, law-enforcement officials and medical and mental-health professionals gathered for prayers and discussions about gun violence and ways to combat it. March 16 featured a national conversation on faith-inspired public policy on gun violence and an interfaith discussion featuring Christian, Islamic and Sikh leaders. The weekend concluded with Sunday worship, where cathedral Dean Gary Hall preached: “[W]e at Washington National Cathedral are in this gun-violence work for the long haul. We won’t give up until our streets and our schools and our children are safe. We owe at least that much to our children, our neighbors, ourselves.”

About 100 people attended the March 16 programs at the cathedral, while others around the country watched a live webcast, said cathedral Communications Director Richard Weinberg. “We know that close to 400 houses of worship across the country had signed up to participate in some way.” This included at least 14 Episcopal congregations, he said.

Plans are underway to continue the anti-violence work.

“We really thought the conversations were rich and meaningful, and we think there’s a way to package excerpts of the day’s events and worship for congregations across the country to continue in dialogue on the issue of gun violence,” Weinberg said, adding, “We are already in dialogue on staff and with our partners about future events.”

Varied responses

While some congregations watched the webcast, others who signed up observed the Sabbath in other ways.

St. Andrew’s by the Lake in Duluth, Minnesota, used the national event “as a goad for our own development locally,” said Vicar Theo Park. “We’ve been trying to pull together a comprehensive campaign.”

Park has preached on gun violence, and a member of the church’s Peace and Justice Committee – which handles outreach – has staffed a table during coffee hours with contact information for lobbying legislators. “So there’s a presence and there’s been a statement, but the [mission] as a whole has taken no official stance,” Park said.

“Heavenly hosts,” created by parishioners at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Lynn, Massachusetts, as part of an art installation there, honor victims of gun and other violence. Photo/Jason Cruz

“Heavenly hosts,” created by parishioners at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Lynn, Massachusetts, as part of an art installation there, honor victims of gun and other violence. Photo/Jason Cruz

The Rev. Jane Gould, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Lynn, Massachusetts, connected with the Sabbath through People Improving Communities through Organization, or PICO, a national network of faith-based community organizations. Gould preached about gun violence and invited parishioners to create “heavenly hosts” in memory of victims of gun violence as part of an art installation at the church.

St. Stephen’s is hosting an installation of “The Way of Salvation,” Stations of the Cross created by diocesan Deacon Gay Cox. The last element is a sanctuary display of “heavenly hosts.” Congregation members were invited to create them, placing colorful shiny paper on one side of CD-sized Styrofoam circles and attaching photos or writing names of victims of gun or other violence, or others they wished to honor, on the other side.

“We had lots of glitter glue, regular glitter, jewels, ribbons – just whatever they wanted to put on their disc to honor someone,” Gould said. One couple decorated a disc in honor of their son, who died while serving in the military; the day of the activity was the anniversary of his death.

The hanging “hosts” will be veiled during Holy Week. “Then they will emerge in all their radiance for the [Easter] Vigil,” Gould said.

Previously, parishioners have lobbied Congressional and other leaders to support gun-control legislation. Even before the Newtown shootings, the Diocese of Massachusetts was grappling with how to combat gun violence following the shooting death of Jorge Fuentes, a young leader from St. Stephen’s Church in Boston and its B-SAFE summer program. The diocese established an anti-violence task force in his memory at its November convention.

Gun violence is not an abstract concern in Lynn. “We’re in a small city with a significant gang presence,” Gould said. Lynn was among eight communities to receive state funding as part of a Safe and Successful Youth Initiative attempting to “stop the bloodletting in the cities,” she said. “Luckily, we don’t have as many deaths by gun violence.”

But one of her parishioners has a cousin hospitalized after being shot three times, she said. “He’s alive; they didn’t think he’d make it through the night.”

“Most of our kids have a friend who’s died” of gun violence, she said.

Gun buyback

Beyond observing the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath, Episcopal churches have addressed gun violence in other ways in recent weeks.

Chief of Investigations William Schievella of the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office holds an assault weapon, illegal in New Jersey, that was surrendered during the March 15-16 anonymous gun buyback hosted by the Roman Catholic St. Paul Inside the Walls in Madison, New Jersey, and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown. Displayed in front of him at a March 18 press conference are about half of the 600 weapons collected in the program, which paid varying amounts totaling nearly $50,000 to those turning them in. Photo/Sharon Sheridan

Chief of Investigations William Schievella of the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office holds an assault weapon, illegal in New Jersey, that was surrendered during the March 15-16 anonymous gun buyback hosted by the Roman Catholic St. Paul Inside the Walls in Madison, New Jersey, and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown. Displayed in front of him at a March 18 press conference are about half of the 600 weapons collected in the program, which paid varying amounts totaling nearly $50,000 to those turning them in. Photo/Sharon Sheridan

On March 16, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey, partnered with Morris County law-enforcement agencies to host an anonymous gun buyback. The event collected 600 guns – including 15 assault weapons illegal in the state, 91 semi-automatic weapons, 192 revolvers and 251 rifles and shotguns – at St. Peter’s and on March 15 at the Roman Catholic St. Paul Inside the Walls in Madison.

When planning the buyback, officials contacted the Morris Area Clergy Council, of which St. Peter’s is a member.

“We thought it was a good idea to partner with the clergy,” said William Schievella, chief of investigations with the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office.

Individuals who have had contact with law enforcement previously may feel more comfortable talking to officers while at a church, he explained. And people might not have felt comfortable coming to a county administration building to turn in weapons, but at a church, “they know it’s a house of worship, and they know it’s an open place for them to come,” he said.

St. Peter’s participated, said Rector Janet Broderick, because “we want to say that life is sacred with our actions – all life. We want to say that every gun which is melted down is one less opportunity for God’s creation to be harmed.”

Det. Craig Brooks of the Morris County Sheriff’s Office inspects a weapon surrendered during an anonymous gun buyback hosted by St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey. Photo/Sharon Sheridan

Det. Craig Brooks of the Morris County Sheriff’s Office inspects a weapon surrendered during an anonymous gun buyback hosted by St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey. Photo/Sharon Sheridan

Guns collected were checked to see if they were loaded (none were) and if they were stolen (three were), officials said during a March 18 press conference. Further checks will identify any weapons used in crimes that must be saved as evidence; the rest will be destroyed. The nearly $50,000 distributed to those surrendering the guns came from donations to the county CrimeStoppers program and from forfeitures from criminal assets.

Morris County is among several New Jersey counties to hold buybacks, with about $900,000 total paid to buy more than 7,000 weapons.

“The primary purpose is to get these things off the street,” Schievella said during the press conference. Acting Prosecutor Fredric Knapp noted that surrendering firearms ensured no one could steal them. “Burglary has traditionally been a problem in suburban communities.”

That was what prompted one man to come to St. Peter’s to surrender two small handguns left among the possessions of his father when he died in 2002. The son tried bringing them to a police department at the time but was told there was no provision for turning them in.

“They were real small. You could actually put them in a pocket,” he said. He placed them in a small safe but worried about them being stolen because his home had been burglarized before. “The safe is small enough, somebody could carry it away.”

Although a legal gun owner, he said he was glad to be rid of the handguns. “I’ve been waiting for this.”

One woman read about the buyback in the newspaper. “There has been this target rifle in my attic for 30 years, and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to turn it in.”

She wrapped the rifle, left behind by an ex-spouse, in newspapers and was pleased that one of the officers removed it from the car for her. “I was really uncomfortable driving here with a gun in my car. I’m not a gun person,” she said. “It’s very unnerving to be near firearms.”

Beyond the buyback, St. Peter’s and other churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark are involved in ongoing efforts to raise awareness about and combat gun violence.

In December, a week after the Newtown shootings, Broderick spearheaded an effort to have banners hung at clergy council member churches – including St. Peter’s and the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Morristown – and town hall and the high school declaring: They Were All Our Children.

On Valentine’s Day, the two-month anniversary of the shootings, St. Peter’s Assistant Rector Melissa Hall, Redeemer Rector Cynthia Black and church laity participated in a rally on the town green against gun violence.

Lobbying efforts

More recently, Broderick joined a clergy delegation from NJ Together, an interfaith coalition affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, in meeting Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th District), a parishioner, to urge him to back gun-control legislation.

“I think he shared our sense that there are some common-sense measures that should be on the books federally to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, but he didn’t commit to supporting them,” said Joe Morris, NJ Together staff organizer. “I think it was a good first meeting, and we’re going to follow up and find out where he stands on these things.”

NJ Together also met with Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5th Dist.) “I think we asked him for five things, and we were 0 for 5,” Morris said. “He told us that he thought that the clergy should do a better job preaching against violent video games.”

“We’ve been kind of using the mandate in Leviticus – ‘Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed’ – which has been kind of a helpful motivation for us but also as a way of evaluating others,” he said. “We came away feeling like Scott Garrett is just standing idly by.”

Elsewhere in the diocese, the Rev. Joseph Harmon, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in East Orange, has been active with NJ Together

A sign on the parish house at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey, directs participants to the county’s anonymous gun buyback program on March 16. Photo/Sharon Sheridan

A sign on the parish house at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey, directs participants to the county’s anonymous gun buyback program on March 16. Photo/Sharon Sheridan

and recently joined other clergy in meeting with East Orange Mayor Robert Bowser to discuss possible strategies for controlling gun violence.

On March 14, a NJ Together group of 14 clergy and laity from four synagogues and three Episcopal churches – Christ Church; All Saints, Hoboken; and Grace Church, Newark – visited three gun venders in Paramus to learn about their policies and urge them to sign on to a Mayors Against Illegal Guns 10-point voluntary code for gun retailers. The code includes actions such as videotaping firearms transactions.

“It was a very positive experience, I think, for all of us,” said Harmon, who participated with some of his parishioners. “We showed up unannounced, and we were very well-received at Dick’s Sporting Goods. The manager spoke very freely and very readily, as did the person behind the gun counter.”

They learned that Dick’s has continued a policy of not selling automatic weapons that it put in place after the Newtown shootings and that “the only guns that they will sell are guns used in hunting,” he said. “They do not sell large-capacity magazines, and they do not sell handguns. That’s their policy, and we applauded them for it. We hope other venders like Walmart and Sports Authority and Ramsey [Outdoor] would come on board with similar kinds of proactive policies.”

“The folks at Ramsey were much more cagey. … They said that the manager was not available,” Harmon said. “It seems like Sports Authority is moving in a similar direction as Dick’s, but we didn’t have information to officially verify that.”

NJ Together is discussing making additional vender visits, he said. “Part of our purpose is not simply to point out the folks whose policies are not very open to ending gun violence … but to recognize those venders that are exercising discretion and sensitivity to the issue, like Dick’s.”

On April 14, NJ Together will hold “a major gathering” at Christ Church for Northern New Jersey congregations involved in the anti-gun violence effort and for newcomers “to come and hear what we’ve been doing, to share their thoughts and hopes and just basically to let each other know that we are here and that our voices in unison and in number can be effective,” Harmon said.

The coalition involves Christians and Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Baha’i, he said. “It is truly an interfaith effort, and it’s growing.”

The tenets of the various faiths all support taking action, he said. “We have the witness of the Christian faith of Jesus Christ, the witness of Muhammad in the Muslim faith, the witness of the prophets and the law in the Jewish faith, and the peaceful spirit that comes from the other faith communities that compel us to stand up and speak out against gun violence.”

– Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.

Comments

  1. Dan B. Odenweller says:

    The Episcopal Church, or some fraction of the Church, apparently unable to cope with their failure to effectively spread the Gospel, continue to blame an inanimate object for the sins of sentient beings.

    How simple a solution, teach society the Ten Commandments, including “Thou shallt not kill,” and the guns magazines and automobiles would not matter. Of course the Bishops, Priests, Deacons and laity would have to focus on doing their job rather than seeking a scapegoat to blame.

    I am an Episcopalian, a gun owner, competitive shooter and firearms safety instructor, and have not commited a crime with a firearm. Why then are you discriminating against me, violating our promise of inclusiveness

    • Mark Bigley says:

      Great reply, Dan, as a fellow Episcopalian and Priest. We’re not all like that. And the commandment means, “Thou shall do no murder.” Self defense isn’t murder. They cannot see that they are stuck in duality, not being able to understand that I am a peace loving person who works for peace while respecting the dignity of every human being” by allowing them the freedom to defend themselves from perpetrators and from government infringement on our privacy.

  2. Joyce Ann Edmondson says:

    Reducing guns will not change the fact that the root cause of multiple killings over the past 15 years has been the use of psychotropic drugs on people that exaggerated their unstable mental condition to the point of aggressive behavior. You will still have the problem unless that is addressed. These drugs help some, but not others. Much more research is needed and obviously is being withheld from the public. Get to the root of the cause first.

  3. Bob Ricker says:

    Why does my church work against me on so many issues? Couldn’t the Episcopal church just work against criminals and leave those of us who are armed for our self protection alone?

    Gun ownership is not a problem. Criminal gun ownership is. Solve THAT problem, and you don’t need to change or add any laws.

  4. Josh Matthews says:

    I agree with the comments on here. Taking divisive stands on divisive and emotional issues like gun control only divide the church more than it already is. I really feel alienated and I feel like the church doesn’t value my opinion because it doesn’t fit in with their partisan politics. It’s no wonder young people choose to remain “spiritual” but not “religious.” The church should be a place where the Gospel is preached, not the hot-button secular political issues of the day. None of this does anything to help fill the pews or grow the church. Jesus was not a 21st century politician and his goal was not political in nature.

  5. David Carr says:

    Let’s talk about real justice – encourage women to learn how to defend themselves. I’m teaching my daughters (and son) how to use firearms for fun and to defend their lives. They will respect guns but not fear them. When they are of legal age, I’ll encourage them to obtain their concealed carry license and I’ll help them select a pistol to carry with them.

  6. Jeff Barker says:

    It is very refreshing to me to read each of the other comments (at least the comments thus far): I really agree with each of you!
    Furthermore, whereas I am not a gun owner, for many of my friends and family, as we were growing up guns were just a part of life. I never got into collecting them, etc., but it did comfort me when I knew loved ones who lived in areas with bad crime were protected. The debate about guns in a free society can get complex, so I do not pretend to have all the “answers.” Nevertheless, I don’t know that anyone–in good faith at least–does have the “answers” yet. So I am uncomfortable with my own church speaking out at a national level as if there is only “one” common view held by all of its members.
    I am an Episcopal and very happy overall with my church locally. I know other members of my congregation participated in a demonstration about gun violence last week. While I fully respect their activism, I simply do not agree with the conclusions I am overhearing or reading about. The end-results appear to be galvanizing a left-wing, Democratic party base and I fear their only “solutions” offered are going to be to crank out more ineffective legislation.
    In conclusion, I applaud your comments for being honest. I try to tolerate and remain open-minded to diverse views, but it’s nice to know I am not the only one out there who thinks the responses to the horrors of gun violence are myopic at best. Horrors like that of Charles Whitman in the 1960s had been going on long before other tragedies such as Newtown. Somehow, perhaps we might pray that our society will improve in being able to detect psychotic, troubled “time-bomb” people before they erupt.
    I just don’t think it gets us very far if churches and clergy divide and polarize us into the same-old, same-old usual “conservative versus liberal” clichés.

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