Presbyterian group brings shooting and Day of Prayer for Students together in toolkit
by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — The Universal Day of Prayer for Students has been celebrated since the late 19th century. But the events of last February have given this year’s observance a special sense of urgency in the eyes of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.
That’s because of the Feb. 17 observance’s proximity to the first anniversary of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 students and staff and injured 17 others.
Peace Fellowship member Jan Orr-Harter, a retired pastor in Aldeo, Texas, says the 17th is “an international day of prayer where we pray for the school children and young adult students in our midst and of the world for their futures and their safety, and it seemed to us that this year we needed to bring those two anniversaries together. We could not face God praying for students without the issue of gun-violence prevention before us and what we are called to do.
“That was the kind of faith and prayer that God would reject.”
So the Peace Fellowship put together a “Worship-Action Kit” (downloadable as a PDF) for congregations to use in observance of the anniversary of the Parkland shooting and the day of prayer, which is annually observed the third Sunday of February.
The centerpiece of the kit is “A Presbyterian Prayer for Action,” introduced at the 223rd General Assembly last June, with the support of the Peace Fellowship, “Marking 50 Years of Presbyterian Witness to Prevent Gun Violence,” according to the kit.
The prayer, adapted to a responsive format, says in part:
We call upon you, Lord;
we have nowhere else to turn.
Galvanize all of us,
every congregation in the Presbyterian Church.
Wake us up in our pews and our lives;
do not let Christ find us asleep on this watch.
Orr-Harter says the church’s gun violence prevention efforts started after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
“After 50 years of statements on gun violence, and almost no one doing anything about it, we felt … another statement against gun violence was just beneath the church, at that point,” she says. “We couldn’t think of anything that would be better than asking every congregation to pray to God to show them what they are to do about gun violence.”
And “what they are to do” is an important distinction, she says, in approaching what has become a polarizing issue.
“The modern gun violence prevention movement is about finding compromises that Americans can agree on that will both protect the rights of gun holders, who are responsible gun owners, and protect public safety at the same time,” Orr-Harter says.
She points to two pieces of legislation last year as hopeful signs: one aimed at improving the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and another banning bump stocks, which make it easier to fire rounds from a semi-automatic weapon. Currently the Fellowship is supporting H.R. 8, a bill introduced last week in the U.S. House of Representatives that would require background checks on all gun sales and most gun transfers.
“It’s a matter of piecing together a quilt of many steps,” Orr-Harter says. “There’s not one step that will stop gun violence. … We’re not looking to take people’s guns away or shut down hunting. It’s, ‘Let’s be smart about guns in our society.’”
The retired pastor says that the Peace Fellowship, which formed in the 1940s, has benefited in recent years from an influx of young adult participation, and that gun violence prevention is particularly important to that group.
“We are so lucky that we have all these young Presbyterians, and a lot of them are young pastors and young parents across the country,” Orr-Harter says, pointing out the group’s executive director, Emily Brewer, is a young pastor in Brooklyn. “That’s who the Peace Fellowship is now, primarily a younger organization.”
And youth were a big part of the Worship-Action kit for February, which includes prayers written by students at First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown, New York. There are also worship tools including suggested scriptures and hymns, such as “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” and additional activities including demonstrations of solidarity with other churches and local engagement with gun violence prevention initiatives.
Like the prayer, the worship-action kit has support from the General Assembly.
“For Presbyterians, prayer and action go together,” says Rev. Cindy Kohlmann, Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly.
Kohlmann will share the Feb. Worship-Action Kit with the presbyteries that she serves, encouraging them to be united in the prayer from the General Assembly.
“We hope to see a nation galvanized to find the compromises to save lives,” Orr-Harter says of observances from Feb. 14-17. “We hope that out of worship Feb. 17 and this prayer from the General Assembly, thousands of Presbyterians will reflect before their Creator on what their role is with this issue. We trust that God will answer those prayers.
“We believe in the power of prayer, and that if we ask God to show us the way, God will.”
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