I gladly accepted a colleague’s invitation to attend a multi-faith meeting on gun violence, gathering clergy-activists from around the country in Washington, D.C. But I had no idea of how transformative the experience would be. Within minutes of sitting down at the table, I knew that I would leave this meeting changed.
These were not the usual suspects, at least in my experience. This was a group of approximately 80 clergy, the great majority of them African-American parish clergy from large American urban areas: Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, Sacramento, Cleveland, and New Orleans, drawn together by the Lifelines for Healing Program of the PICO Network (“People Improving Communities through Organizing,” a faith-based organizing initiative in 150 American cities). Whites were a conspicuous minority - 9 rabbis, a handful of white Protestant ministers, and one Catholic sister.
Early in the first day of the program, we were asked to write a personal story of how gun violence had touched our lives. I had become involved in gun violence work because of the Newtown shootings, but the question invited me to try to remember other attacks that had touched me deeply.
I thought of the attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles in 1999, with its riveting photographic image of a long line of small children being led across the street to safety, tiny hands clasped in terror. I thought of the spate of suicides among students at the high school my daughter attended, and of the recent murder of Reuven Rahamim at his workplace in Minneapolis. Not coincidentally, in these incidents, the victims were Jews, or schoolmates of my daughter’s.
But in the silence, as people in the room put their thoughts on paper, I knew that the African-American clergy at my table had a radically different experience of the exercise than I did. The man to my right shrugged his shoulders in frustration, muttering, “One story? How could I possibly choose one story?”
As the days of the meeting unfolded, this place became my own story of gun violence. Sharing meals and conversation, tears, laughter and prayer with my African-American colleagues, I began to absorb their everyday experience of gun violence. I heard again and again that these attacks were regular occurrences in their ministry. Burying a young adult whose birth he had witnessed, over whose baptism she had officiated. Learning that a young man had been shot dead as he tried to reach the church for safety. Grieving over families who had lost two, three, even four children to gun violence. Resolving to risk their own lives, walking gang-dominated streets late at night to communicate their concern and solidarity with the families of their community.
I thought we had come to talk about Newtown, and the tragic opportunity it presented to promote sensible gun violence prevention measures in our country. My colleagues grieved the horror of Newtown as I did. But for them and their communities, Newtown happens every week, if not every day.
My head ached and I felt physically ill as we learned more about the problem of urban gun violence. 30,000 Americans killed in domestic violence each year, half of them young people. For perspective, 12,000-13,000 people die in terrorist activists all over the world each year. Approximately 60,000 people have died since the violence began in Syria, and most of the world considers that a massacre. My mind struggled to absorb the basic facts: more than 80 people (half of them young people) die every day of gun violence in the United States.
Horror and pain turned to confusion and shame. How could I not have known or understood the breadth and depth of the problem of urban violence, an epidemic by any standard? Surely, I had been dimly aware of the problem, but for a combination of reasons – distance (not in my part of town), overwhelm, and denial, among them – I had not attended to this problem. Not my issue.
Newtown woke me up. As a parent, the death of 20 small children broke open my heart and mind, so that I had no choice but to become engaged with the issue. But like the other horrific mass shootings in recent memory (Columbine, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek), the setting was not the inner city, and the victims were white. Coincidence? Or have I, like so much of white America, conveniently placed my attention elsewhere while blood ran in the streets of our cities?
I surely learned more from my African-American colleagues than they did from me at this week’s conference. As a rabbi, a Jew, an American, and a human being, I can no longer be indifferent. I join my colleagues of the Lifelines to Healing Campaign in the following commitments:
“We share in the outrage growing from every corner of our nation that we have abandoned our young people to the clutches of violence fueled by greed, fear and our despair. We bear witness to the deep pain of our nation’s people, whose loved ones are dying needlessly in our communities across the land, that our God commands we speak out about the sanctity of all life and affirm that all have the right to live in peace and safety. . . .
We affirm that every life is precious in the eyes of our creator and our God has no pleasure in the death of anyone. We are committed to uniting around the common pain and loss of who have suffered in Newtown and New Orleans, Chicago and Columbine and Oak Creek and Oakland. We are committed through our work to heal the soul of a nation. We will be vigilant partners in the struggle to transform our communities from the valley of the shadow of death to the land of the living."