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Presbyterian Peacemaking Program
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To tip the scales of justice toward safety

by Phoebe Sheftel

You know the story of the mustard seed? Well, that was about as tiny and powerless as a few of us at Bryn Mawr (Pa.) Presbyterian Church felt when we started the process of addressing the issues of gun violence, specifically the proliferation of illegal handguns. What could 10 members of our Peacemaking Task Force do to change anything? After all, we’d been trying since the early 1980s to stop war and hadn’t seemed to make much progress on that front. But inspired by one of our members, we started with the usual stuff a committee does — talk.

Now talk is helpful — you can learn a lot about an issue and come together on why it is important. But talk needs to translate into something else to have any effect. So we took the next step and put something on paper. We crafted a resolution calling for legislative action in Pennsylvania to limit individuals to the purchase of no more than a single handgun a month. One a month? Why so many, you may ask? Well, it would be a lot better than the current situation, which allows anyone to buy as many guns as he or she wants. It’s this lack of legal restraint on purchases that enables gun traffickers to acquire handguns in bulk to sell on the street to people (criminals, underaged, emotionally disturbed) who cannot pass background checks. These are the handguns that fuel crime and violence.

With apprehension that we might encounter some push-back, we took the resolution to Session hoping they would adopt something similar. Not only did they unanimously endorse the resolution, but the deacons and Women’s Association quickly followed with their resolutions.

Next step was the Presbytery of Philadelphia’s Peacemaking Committee, which got on board and took on the issue as one of its focus points. From there the next logical move was to take it to the presbytery. Passed with only a single dissenting vote, the Presbytery’s Resolution on "One-Handgun-a-Month" Legislation called the Stated Clerk to contact the state legislature in support of the pending legislation and to connect with other nearby presbyteries to urge their involvement in the issue. The Peacemaking Committee supplied educational resources that could be used by congregations interested in learning about what they could do on the community level.

Back at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian, emboldened by our success in getting others engaged in the issue, we were ready to move from the talking and writing stage to the action stage. We gathered an interfaith group that spent six months planning an event we called “STOP Gun Violence Through Prayer, Education and Action.” To build awareness of the terrible toll gun violence was taking on the streets of Philadelphia and to stimulate interest in the event that was to be held in May, we began a weekly witness in front of the church. Each Sunday evening starting in January, we put out luminaries on the front lawn — one light standing for each victim. Each week the number of plastic milk carton luminaries grew alarmingly. Any discomfort we felt from standing in the freezing cold was easily overwhelmed by the reminder of all the families and friends who had lost loved ones represented by the individual lights. By the time we had the event in May there were well over 150 candles being lit.

We at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian hope we’ve started something that will eventually save lives across this country. We believe the active involvement of people of faith can and will tip the scales toward safety.

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