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On the day we had an active shooter drill…

On Sunday, September 15, Emily’s church had the first of three active-shooter trainings in the midst of its worship services. Members and friends were told about the training in advance.

On the day we had an active shooter drill, our community awoke to thunderstorms. Rain-soaked shoes dampened our carpets, squeaked on the hardwood, and worshippers raced into the sanctuary right as the prelude was ending, just like they always do.

On the day we had an active shooter drill, our worship didn’t seem to mind. The congregation sang about laughter; the choir about loudest praises. The scripture promised that new life was coming. The preacher spoke about abandoning cynicism for hope; and those gathered seemed—mostly—to agree.

On the day we had an active shooter drill, we baptized a new believer in faith with tearful, heartfelt ritual. We gathered around God’s table to share the promise and the feast.

And then the drill got started.

We put three old words into new context: Run. Hide. Fight.

Congregants shuddered and cried in our most sacred of spaces. The pews beneath them strained and creaked, trying hard to hold all that restlessness, all that discomfort, all that weight.

At least one person grew angry, and stormed out once we finished. Another said: There’s no one that dangerous around here. Observing our mostly white congregation, I thought: We are the dangerous ones.

When it was over, a pastor acknowledged the swirling emotions, thanking all who gathered for taking time to think about such awful things. It’s easier to turn away our hearts and heads and eyes.

Together, we prayed for broken hearts, and asked for God to use them. Move us, we prayed, into action. May our sadness become compassion. May our  tiredness become advocacy. May our anger inspire us  to—finally—make a change.

Somehow, when we left, the sun was shining. Inexplicably. On the day we had an active shooter drill.

The author’s sign and shirt for March for Our Lives. The Cross in both is made from parts of an AK47.

Swords Into Plowshares

The author’s sign and shirt for March for Our Lives. The Cross in both is made from parts of an AK47.

The author’s sign and shirt for March for Our Lives. The Cross in both is made from parts of an AK47.

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. Read more

collage of pictures of participants of March for Our Lives march in Washington DC

Marching for our Lives: Called and Named

Looking younger than her eleven years, Naomi Wadler stepped up to the microphone to address more than half a million gathered in Washington, DC. She recalled how she and a classmate at her school in Alexandria, Virginia, organized an eighteen-minute walkout on March 14th, along with students across the country. With others, they walked out one minute for each of the victims of the Parkland shooting, but Naomi added an additional minute for Courtlin Arrington, the young black teen killed at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama, weeks after the Parkland shooting.

Naomi named Hadiyah Pendleton, Tiana Thompson, and other black and brown girls who are killed by gun violence but whose names aren’t known and spoken, who become relegated to statistics rather than lives. Their names joined a chorus – a communion of saints – lifted by the young speakers throughout the afternoon: Stephon Clark, Cynthia Williams, Zaire Kelly, Ricardo Chavez, DeShawn Moore, Victoria Soto, and too many more. I was grateful to be part of the great cloud of witnesses to this hallowed event, which culminated in an extended period of silence as Emma Gonzalez gave space for all gathered to experience the six minutes, twenty seconds, that it took for a gunman to kill seventeen souls on that Ash Wednesday.

The numbers impacted by gun violence are staggering, and we heard some of the numbers. But over and over, we heard names. Names were lifted, and like the church in El Salvador, naming the losses and disappearances during the reign of terror by death squads, I wanted to shout, “Presente!” In naming those young lives cut short by gun violence, we honored their lives, and asserted that they were more than statistics.

The passage from Isaiah that I kept hearing was from Isaiah 11, about God’s peaceable kingdom, in which “a little child shall lead them.” That was certainly appropriate as we saw these children – many a few years away from voting themselves – speaking powerfully and prophetically, and calling for change. But my mind kept finding Isaiah 43 instead: “I have called you by name, you are mine.” God assures Israel that God will be with them – through waters, fire, and flame, they will not be overtaken. God will save them.

The act of naming is a sacred one. Christening is now a synonym for naming, but it quickly shows its Christian roots, where a new name and new identity as one claimed by Christ is bestowed. God names us and claims us. As these young people whose lives have been permanently scarred by gun violence named lives lost, it seemed to me as though God was shouting the names for all to hear, saying “These are not numbers or statistics. They are not unfortunate casualties of unavoidable tragedies. These are my beloved children, and their blood cries out from the soil.”

Also in Isaiah 43, God says, “Do not fear…you are precious in my sight… I love you. Do not fear, I am with you.” Just after Naomi, 16-year old Mya Middleton came to the stage. She shared her own story, living in Chicago and going to the store to buy some food for her mother, sick at home. The young man in front of her ended up pulling a gun on her. If she ever told anyone, he threatened to find her and kill her. But she told the crowd, “I will not be silent! I will not live in fear!” Read more