The guest is the Rev. M. Courtenay Willcox of Tree of Life Church in Springfield, Pennsylvania
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — In her efforts combatting gun violence, the Rev. M. Courtenay Willcox prefers traveling upstream with her activism.
“For me, it’s easy,” the transitional pastor of Tree of Life Church in Springfield, Pennsylvania, said last week during the “A Matter of Faith” podcast hosted by the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong, which can be heard here. “You have to go upstream to interrupt things around gun violence before they start.”
That approach doesn’t “discount the importance of trauma-based therapy” and the impacts gun violence has on a victim’s family, friends and community, as well as the people who survive gun violence, according to Willcox. “Scripture says my responsibility to my siblings — in this case, people who are dying from gun violence — is to love God and love neighbor as yourself. What I see here in suburban Philadelphia, which is where I live, is that my neighbors are dying every day.”
The Genesis account of Cain murdering his brother Abel is the Bible’s first mention of sin, she noted. Abel’s blood “calls out from the ground,” Willcox said. “In this story, the earth has agency and speaks out against murder.” When Willcox considers the 516 Philadelphians who lost their lives to gun murder in 2022, “I think the earth still cries out against this kind of thing.”
“I think we can all be public theologians as we speak out against gun violence killing our siblings,” said Willcox, a board member of the organization Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence, where her advocacy has included working with members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass a law limiting an individual’s gun purchases to 13 in a given year. If it becomes law, it would “interrupt the flow of illegal guns,” Willcox said. “Among hunters and legal gun-owners, typically there’s not a lot of pushback on limiting the flow of illegal guns,” she said, adding that in her extended family, gun ownership is sometimes a topic of conversation around the Thanksgiving table. “You have to know your audience,” she said, “but it’s a conversation that can be had.”
Most people, Doong said, don’t oppose upstream solutions, including gun-control legislation.
In fact, about 85% of the population “is in favor of commonsense gun laws,” Willcox said, “and we still can’t get legislators to move off the dime and pass them.”
“That is an enlightening statistic,” Doong said, “and a disheartening fact.”
Willcox encouraged listeners to write and call their legislators — or, better still, go visit them. “People think that’s scary, but the legislators love to hear from just people who aren’t lobbyists,” she said. “They represent us, and if they don’t hear from us, they don’t know what we’re thinking.”
One lament Willcox often hears from people of faith is “How long, O Lord?”
“Until we get off our rear ends and do something, that’s how long,” she said. “I think God is weeping over the deaths of people from gun violence. It’s our responsibility to be activists and to do something about it.”
The Bible is replete with stories of people who took great risks to bring about just results for God’s people. Moses’ mother, Jochebed, put her baby in a papyrus basket and placed them both in the reeds near the river, where the baby was found by Pharaoh’s daughter. Midwives Shiphrah and Puah also saved the lives of male Hebrew babies by fibbing to Pharaoh about the vigor of Hebrew women.
“It’s not huge things we have to do, but we have to do something,” Willcox said. “I wonder what remarkable things we are going to do to shift the future of gun violence in our cities and our country?”
Willcox got involved in Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence after she saw the Memorial to the Lost, a traveling T-shirt display honoring those who have died by gun violence. “It’s a powerful reminder of lives lost and the families and communities that have been affected,” she said. Gun violence awareness days, which are often ecumenical or interfaith, are also ways to show “we are stronger when we stand in our diversity,” she said, especially as people sing, pray and say liturgy developed by people of many faiths.
Doong reminded listeners that commissioners to the 225th General Assembly (2022) approved the Decade to End Gun Violence. The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program is awarding a number of grants to congregations, worshiping communities, mid councils and institutions to conduct events to prevent gun violence. Learn more or apply for a grant here.
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