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How Presbyterian churches and other faith groups can combat gun violence

Panelists offer advice during ‘Standing Our Holy Ground’ webinar

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Like millions of Americans, many people of faith support gun violence prevention. (Contributed photo)

LOUSVILLE — A decade ago, the advocacy group Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence helped to shut down a controversial gun shop in Philadelphia.

With the involvement of many different faith communities, “we brought nine months’ worth of public attention to this particular gun shop, which was selling lots of guns that ended up in crime and so on,” said Bryan Miller, the group’s executive director. “We, eventually, basically embarrassed ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) into closing the gun shop.”

It’s an example of actions that faith-based organizations can take to try to stop gun violence. From neighborhood shootings to school-related incidents like Thursday’s shooting at a southern California high school, guns continue to claim thousands of lives in the United States.

“Gun violence is a public health epidemic that impacts our communities, our congregations and our members — whether they know it or not,” said the Rev. Margery Rossi, who’s the moderator of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s Gun Violence Prevention Working Group.

Rossi spoke earlier this week during one of the latest segments of the Standing Our Holy Ground webinar series. The webinar (seen here ) also featured Miller and other experts who provided examples and suggestions about how to mobilize against gun violence and its devastating effects.

The series, offered by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in collaboration with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, is designed to challenge people of faith to bring about change.

“You might need to begin by looking beyond the faith community to find partners who you can connect with locally because, sadly, the faith community at this point is kind of behind groups like Moms Demand Action,” said Rossi, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Wappingers Falls, New York. However, “that doesn’t mean it has to only stay out there. We want people within the faith community, as Bryan pointed out, to claim this, to say we are doing this because of who we are as people of faith and what we believe.”

Panelists who spoke during the webinar included Miller; the Rev. Roy Howard, pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Maryland, and Corneilius Scott, founder of the Family Survivor Network in Baltimore.

The webinar occurred a few days before the shooting at Saugus High School, near Los Angeles, in which a 16-year-old killed two students and wounded others before shooting himself in the head.

Asked whether that incident might spur more churches to action, Howard later said in an email, “I believe that the response to gun violence appears to be either numbness and resignation or a deeper commitment to do all that is possible to prevent future death. My sense is that more churches are choosing the latter response rather than hopelessness and despair.”

During the webinar, Miller stressed the importance of contacting legislators and letting them know that the faith-based community is not limited to “radical right Christians.”

“Many, many people of faith, and in my view the majority of people of faith, actually believe in gun violence prevention,” he said. “Unfortunately, the American faith community has not been as active in gun violence prevention as it has been for every other national social movement for change in American history. We want to be a little spark, if you will, to that faith community so that it grows in its involvement with gun-violence prevention.”

Before implementing a plan of action, it’s important to get your church’s session involved, said Howard, who has many years of experience working for change.

“You, as an active member of the church or an active pastor, elder leader of the church, can only do so much,” Howard said. “But when you have your entire leadership team engaged with you, and you’ve done the hard work of praying, of educating yourself and then doing the pastoral work of engaging and organizing, the effects of this in the wider community are going to be so much greater than if it’s one or two or even three people kind of working together.”

Actions that can be taken include writing letters; requesting personal meetings with local, state and federal officials; hosting forums; meeting with other members of the congregations for prayer and conversation; and working with other congregations and the community on initiatives, he said.

Miller promoted the idea of erecting “memorials to the lost,” featuring T-shirts with the name, age and date of death of people felled by guns. The memorials provide a way to draw publicity and reach the public.

“This memorial attracts tremendous attention from people in the neighborhood where it’s put up,” he said. “It then develops media attention. Every time we get that kind of attention, it’s a chance for us to educate the public, either through direct contact or through media attention, about how guns reach the street.”

The final panelist, Scott, stressed the importance of not just focusing on where guns come from but on the social-emotional issues surrounding gun violence as well, especially in urban areas.

“Listening and learning and privileging the voices of the disinherited, having a trauma-centered focus, and three, broadening our focus to improve social-emotional understanding is critical,” he said.

Scott also advocated for education on conflict resolution, particularly for youngsters and college-age students.

“Reach out to put in place an anger-management/conflict-resolution curriculum in your congregation,” he said. Or bring someone in “so that you can begin to reach out to the young people who are apparently facing some challenges that they just can’t settle with the tools that they have.”

Rossi noted that the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship works with churches around the country and can serve as a resource for those looking to connect with potential partners. It also offers a congregational toolkit on its website.

But you don’t have to be an expert to act, she said. “If you have a feeling that there is something wrong with having 40,000 people a year die by guns, that is enough to give you a platform to do something about it.”

The work of the Peacemaking Program is made possible by gifts to the Peace & Global Witness Offering.

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