Post Author: Rev. Molly F. James, PhD
Adapted from a talk on behalf of Episcopal Peace Foundation at Episcopal Urban Caucus meeting.
I would like to begin by sharing a bit of how I came to realize that gun violence is my problem, and not only can I be a part of the solution, but as a Christian, as a human being, as a mother, I have to be.
I grew up in rural Maine. Many of my family and friends are gun owners. Hunting is a way of life in Maine – and a source of food for many Maine families. Guns were a part of my environment growing up, but they were a tool for protecting livestock from predators and for getting food. Maine has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the country, but one of the lowest gun crime rates, so I simply didn’t encounter the issue of gun violence. I went to college in Medford, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, where there certainly is more gun violence than in Maine. However, it didn’t come close to me, so sadly it was easy to ignore.
The reality of the issue of gun violence began to be real for me when I spent my first year of ministry working as a hospital chaplain in New Haven, Connecticut – a city that sees numerous shootings every year. I remember how my colleagues who had been there a long time would lament when the weather began to get warm in the spring because it meant the guns would come out, and there would be an increase in shooting victims arriving in our Emergency Room. No longer was gun violence something that happened “out there;” it was close and real.
But then I left hospital ministry and worked in a small town parish and on a PhD in theology, and gun violence stayed at a distance. However, it was through my parish work that I began to learn that gun violence did not need to be a permanent reality. I learned about stories of hope and transformation. The parish in which I was working, and our diocese of Connecticut, have a companion relationship with the Diocese of Lebombo in Mozambique. Through that relationship I learned the remarkable story of what had happened to the guns at the end of their civil war.
Their bishop started a program that quite literally turned swords into plowshares. People were invited to trade in their guns for farming equipment and tools of industry. And the people did. Over 800,000 guns were turned in. Those guns were turned into artwork, such as the cross above, which is made from the pistons of an AK-47. The good work of the people of Mozambique give me hope that transformation is possible.
Since 2011, I have worked on diocesan staff, and I was in my office on the 14th of December 2012 when I began to see news alerts that there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Since I have chaplaincy training, I offered to go with my bishops that afternoon. We spent the afternoon at Trinity, Newtown, planning a prayer service for that evening. We ministered to anyone who came in the door and heard heartbreaking stories – particularly when it became known that a six-year-old whose family was very active at Trinity was among the victims. Hundreds of people poured into Trinity that evening. The shock and terrible pain was evident on every face I saw that night.
I am saddened and slightly horrified to say that it took that day, it took the terrible massacre of twenty little children and six of their educators for me to really wake up. We have an epidemic of gun violence in this country, and it has to stop. This is not someone else’s problem. It is our problem. We are all responsible for how completely out of hand things have gotten, and we all have to be a part of the solution.
I returned to Trinity a week later to assist at the funeral. That was an incredible experience. As any of you know who have participated in the funeral of a young person, it is heart wrenching. We are not supposed to bury six year olds. Coffins and urns are not supposed to be that small. Every child should have the opportunity to grow up, to be safe in school.
While it was a sad day in so many ways, it was also a deeply inspiring day. The way that community came together in solidarity was remarkable. It was a sunny, but cold day. Rumors had been circulating the members of the Westboro Baptist Church might try to picket the funerals of the Sandy Hook victims. When we arrived at the front of the church for the procession, we were surrounded by a friendly wall of protection. Boy Scout Troops and numerous members of the community stood side by side all around the church. Those Boy Scouts were all in their uniforms – their shirtsleeves, standing at attention, some holding flags. Many of those boys can’t have been much older than the children who died. They stood there, just like that, in the cold, for the entire length of the service, until the hearse drove away to the cemetery.
It was scenes like that that began to give me hope for the future. I saw that as horrible as this event was, it had the power to bring us together to make sure we do something about the issue of gun violence in our nation. Immediately in the wake of those events, our diocese began working to be a part of the solution. There are lots of faithful people who have been working on this issue in Connecticut and beyond for many years. And there were many more who, like me, who had a wake up call on December 14th and realized we had to do something.
There have been 290 school shootings and more than 50,000 gun deaths since that tragic day in Newtown. Sadly, Newtown did not bring an end to the violence on our streets.
And so we must continue our work. We must continue our ministry – we must preach the Gospel of peace in our cities. We must show the world that we know there is another way to live. We must not let the violence overwhelm or defeat us. In each of our congregations and communities, we must be a voice for peace, a voice for hope, a voice for a future free from gun violence. A future where men, women and children are safe in their homes, at work, at school and on the streets.
Together we have a story to tell how God’s love is more powerful than the violence and evil of this world. It is a story the world desperately needs to hear – again and again. Let’s us go forth and preach that Word with our lives.
Molly Field James is an Episcopal priest who serves on the Bishops’ Staff as the Dean for Formation for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. She holds a PhD in Theology from the University of Exeter (UK). She holds a MDiv from Yale Divinity School. She is an Associate Priest at Christ Church Cathedral and Grace Church in Hartford, Connecticut. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at Hartford Seminary and the University of St. Joseph.
Previously, she has served as a parish priest and a hospital chaplain. Her husband, Reade, is a mechanical engineer, and they have two children – Katherine, who was born in October of 2010, and Halsted, who was born in April of 2014. In addition to ministry and education, Molly loves cooking, reading, films and spending time in the splendor of God’s Creation.
Image by: Rev. Dr. Molly F. James
Used with permission