Thursday, March 20, 2014

Reflecting on the March Sabbath

The Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath was a national effort in March 2014 led by Washington National Cathedral and Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, to pray for an end to the continuing horror of gun violence in this country, and to raise awareness of the tragic consequences and costs for individuals and families affected.

What follows are reflections by some of those involved in the March Sabbath event, on what it meant to them to take part, how it touched them and others.

A Howard Student’s Reflections on the Gun Violence Sabbath Project

Tatiana Bien-Aime
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel with some of my fellow Howard University students to Church House to help prepare the materials that would be used in the Gun Violence Sabbath display. Initially my mind was focused just on dividing up tasks and completing our stated goals, but as the day progressed our service evolved into something much deeper.

Around lunchtime the Rev. Franklin-Vaughn asked us to reflect on the meaning of the crosses and their use to hold up the t-shirts that will have the names and ages of homicide victims on them. This conversation transformed the whole experience for me.
Instead of a project where I was attaching pieces together to make a cross and making sure I neatly write down names and numbers, the humanity that was lost was highlighted for me. The names became attached to people in my mind, and the ages gave me pause. Some t-shirts listed babies as young as seven months! And a lot of the counties from which the victims were from were communities of color, and there were a large number of women on the lists.

 So this made me start asking questions about domestic violence and how the Episcopal Church interacts with communities of color. Moreover it made me think of the families directly affected by this tragedy.  But most of all it made me think about Christ and Christ’s church, and how we, as Christians, had a duty to do more than just display the names. We had an obligation to ensure that the victims of gun violence were not just on display outside of the church, but made it inside the walls of the church and the liturgy. This could be either in the form of reading the names in the prayers for the people, and/or the churches opening up their doors and creating a safe space and time for the families to come in, come together, and grieve the loss of their loved ones. Also, I thought it would be a great idea if we could hand write letters to the families letting them know about this project and how their family member was being represented, as well as to express our condolences.

Lastly, this project and the use of the crosses made me think of Christ and how he died on a cross for our sins, and how this loss to gun violence was a cross for the families and society to bear. Gun violence is a very serious issue in this country, and the implications of this issue touches us all, regardless of race, class, creed, and gender. It is a human family problem, which is why gun control policy reform is so crucial!
When our work was completed, we decided to perform an African libation ceremony to honor the victims of gun violence who had gone on to be with the ancestors. So we gathered around a tree in the garden, called the names of all those on the list, and prayed for peace for those spirits we could name and the countless others who had fallen victim to gun violence in this county. To close the ceremony in unison we said Ashe, which is a Swahili word that means “So let it be” or “Amen”.

Moving forward I pray that we, as a nation and a human family, will find a solution to this gun violence crisis in this country. And that it will come sooner rather than later.

Ashe and Amen.

Tatiana Bien-Aime
Graduate Peer Minister
Anglican/Episcopal/Lutheran Chaplaincy
Masters of Social Work Candidate 2014
Howard University

The Courage to Hope Amidst the Violence of Guns

Patty Johnson
I’ve lived in this city for 45 years and raised four sons in Washington DC.  Like every other parent, I worried a lot when they were out at night but for us, gun violence was an “over there” issue.  Nevertheless it was an issue that deeply impacted me. I had a rule:  no guns of any sort in our house.  My sons are grown now, among the fortunate ones,  but I’m painfully aware of the many families dealing with anguish and mere memories  of their sons or daughters.  We must stop the violence on our streets.

I am blessed to be the Canon Missioner here at the National Cathedral and have an opportunity to do whatever I can to stop the tragic violence that costs our country 30,000 lives a year. The March Sabbath provided me with  new hope for the future of our non-violence work.   There is growing awareness of the human suffering caused by gun violence and a growing resolve to do something about it.  States are enacting new laws as they become aware that background checks save lives.  It’s particularly exciting that  the Bishop and Dean  are in the forefront on this issue  and I’m proud that I’m working with a dedicated group determined to make a difference.  The Gun Sabbath event here connected us in a unique way with our City as we honored victim’s families and the First Responders and heard from city leaders as well as national leaders.  Across the country over 1,000 congregations prayed and preached and acted.  The stories are compelling, offering messages of hope and healing.   I’m coming out of this Sabbath time with a greater understanding of the depth of God’s love for us as He gave his only son to die on a cross. Our faith calls us to act.

Patty Johnson
Canon Missioner
Washington National Cathedral

Joining Hands in Beltsville

The Rev. John Price
St. John's Episcopal/Anglican Church recently chose to participate in a nationwide "sabbath" [ a day of rest ] against gun violence.  The Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, the Rt. Rev. Marianne Budde, had asked several congregations to share in this witness on behalf of everyone in our diocese.  The total number of deaths by gunfire in 2013  in the District and the state of Maryland are appalling.   As a Christian congregation deeply committed to the common good for all people, we felt the need to call this terrible death toll to the attention of our entire community.  As we set up the crosses  on the church lawn, with the names of victims from  our and several nearby counties, we were staggered by the number, and the relative youth of many who had died.

These crosses signify not only the loss of their lives, but also the tragedy taking place daily across our nation as the plague of death by gunfire continues to spread.  As we began to erect the display, we  stopped and prayed for all the dead and tried to imagine the many gifts and dreams lost to their families and to the communities in which they lived.  We prayed for these girls and boys, men and women and  now call upon our whole community to stand up to this carnage and to work together for reasonable regulations and laws concerning the buying and selling of guns.

The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., has long been a "house of prayer for all people," and voice from our moral center on the issues of social and economic justice, reconciliation on local and international levels, and the pursuit of peace throughout the world that is inclusive and just, as well as on the spiritual vocation Christians have to honor and respect people of all faiths.

St. John's invites all our sisters and brothers in the Beltsville area to join hands and declare that every human life is sacred.   And let us join our voices and demand state and national legislation that can bring social sanity and safety to everyone on our streets, in our schools and in our homes.

The Rev. Dr. John Price
Interim Rector, St. John's Church, Beltsville.

We Can Act Now

The Rev. Jessica Hitchcock
Adam Aarnt shot himself, and it remains unclear whether he also shot 17 year old Michelle Miller or she shot herself.  Preeta Paul Gabba was shot by her ex-husband.  David Draa killed himself after killing his good friend Kyle Hickman.  Antoine Goodrum was shot by police when he refused to put down his AR-15 riffle.  Jermaine Jackson committed suicide after being stopped by an officer for a traffic violation.  Michael Alvarado was shot in broad daylight at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.  Alexander Buie was shot by intruders who broke into his house seemingly with the sole intent of killing him. There are crosses outside that remind us of their lives lost. Their stories are ones that we remember because we heard about them in our local news.  They are the nine reported gun violence fatalities in Montgomery County in 2013.

I’ve preached a lot about gun violence prevention, and I don’t feel the need talk about legislation or governmental response anymore.  I know this matters to you.  The fact there have been 44 school shootings since Newton breaks your heart, terrifies you, makes you feel helpless, makes you feel irate.  Me too.  We need mandatory background checks and we need to get rid of high capacity magazines and military style weapons.  You know that.  We need to improve people’s access to mental health services.  You know that.

And yet, we need to keep having this conversation.  We can’t get tired of this conversation, we can’t give up and we can’t back down.  We need to have the courage to keep having this conversation.  We need to have the courage to keep the wound open and our hearts vulnerable.  We cannot let our hearts become hardened, we cannot allow ourselves to become resilient to gun violence as an accepted part of our lives.   We have to let our hearts be vulnerable to the stories of those whose names adorn the church lawn.  We have to let our hearts be vulnerable to each others’ stories, and we have to have the courage to tell our own stories of how we have been affected by gun violence.  How has your life been affected by gun violence?  This is not a rhetorical question.  If you are able, would you briefly share your experience with this community?

Our scriptures today speak about God’s promise and plans.  God tells Abram that God will make his family a great nation, but this is just the beginning of a very long process of God keeping that promise to Abram.  There is a long period of time where Abram has no descendents, and the idea of God making a great nation from him doesn’t seem very likely since Abram doesn’t even have any children.  As Abram waits for that first generation of the great nation to become a reality, he must have had doubts.  It is only when he is very old and it is medically impossible for him and Sara to have children that baby Issac arrives.  God made it very clear that God kept the promise.

And then in the reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, born from above to see God’s kingdom come– and Nicodemus says that’s impossible.  Which is what Sara and Abram said when they found out they were having a baby.  God works in the impossible.  That’s where God does God’s best work.

Gun Violence Prevention seems like impossible work, but – the impossible is where God does God’s best stuff.  We have to have the courage to keep at this.  And while I want you to keep advocating for reasonable gun legislation, today I want to keep this closer to home.  Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, godparents, sparents, teachers, and neighbors – we need to protect our children by asking if there is a gun where they play.

An average of 8 children are shot accidentally in the United States every day, most of those by a friend or family member close to their age.  So we need to have the courage to ask the really uncomfortable question: “Is there a gun at your house?” when they go over to someone’s house to play.  Having kids in your life means a lot of awkward conversations.  Just add this one to the pile.  You can’t assume that someone doesn't have a gun in their house no matter how well you know them.  If you haven’t heard them say they don’t have a gun, you have to ask – and if they do have a gun, make sure it is locked away, unloaded, and the ammunition is in a different location.

The other awkward conversation I need to us to find the courage to be willing to have is to ask our loved ones if they are suicidal or having suicidal thoughts.  Really hard.  Very vulnerable.  Absolutely lifesaving.  You won’t always see the signs, sometimes this fatal illness snatches a life away with no warning.  But - If you are worried about a friend or family member, if they have said something or done something that makes you concerned for their safety, speak up.  Pray, and then ask “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?”

More than half of the gun violence deaths in this nation are deaths by suicide.  One sixth of the gun violence injuries and deaths to children are accidental.  With God’s help, we can affect those numbers all by ourselves, without congress, without the state legislature.   But we have to be show up and live brave.

We believe in a God who works in impossible situations, who brought forth a great nation made up of descendants of two very old people.  We believe in a God who invites us to be reborn from above so that we may see God’s kingdom come, and who has made that possible in the redeeming and renewing life of Jesus.  We believe in a God who will make possible the impossible idea of reasonable gun legislation reform, a God who is willing to be so vulnerable to us partner with us on making that impossible longing possible.  Why does God choose to work through us instead of around us? Because God is much more interested in changed hearts than changed legislation.

We believe in a God who will give us the courage to be connected with those we trust with our children to ask the hard question of “Is there a gun where my child plays?”  We believe in a God who will give us the courage in that terrifying moment of compassion to say to someone “I’m concerned about you.  Have you had any thoughts about hurting yourself?”

We can act now.  We can affect change in our community.  We can save lives. God is constantly offering us the opportunity to be born again and to let something new happen in our lives.  God does God’s best work in the impossible.

The Rev. Jessica Hitchcock
Assistant Rector, St. Luke's Bethesda

A Reflection from the "Way of the Cross"

Sin is that characteristic human behavior we have no difficulty recognizing, especially in other people!  The same is true of violence.  We can point to it all around us: here in Washington where Congress is bedeviled by rancor and hostility, or at home in the vitriolic letters in our local papers and the anger expressed on radio talk shows.  We identify the violence by pointing away from ourselves, but is that the whole story?

“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? 
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.  
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:  I crucified thee.” 
(“Ah, holy Jesus,” The Hymnal 1982, no. 158)

The hard truth to accept about ourselves is that all too often we contribute to the violence of our society.  The violence done to innocent victims, young and old, who pay the price for our having guns readily available.  The violence done to the poor, to the unemployed, to the sick and to college students because low taxes and a high military budget are the order of the day, whatever the cost to others.  If things are truly to change, let it begin with me. May God’s amazing grace revealed in the cross enable me to face up to the violence within me that I hold on to and to renounce the violence around me from which I benefit.

From The Way of the Cross, Washington, DC 3/25/2013, by the Rt. Rev. Jeffery Rowthorn, Bishop of the Convocation of the Episcopal Churches in Europe, retired

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