In mid-December many houses of worship around the nation will observe a collective, interfaith Sabbath of shalom to protect life. But probably few know about. It’s National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend, Dec. 14-18, or specifically Dec. 18 for Christians who worship on Sunday.
More than 500 places of worship in 46 states and the District of Columbia reportedly celebrated the third year of this special Sabbath in 2015. The mid-December dates commemorate the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. But the prevailing concern over gun violence extends far beyond that unforgettable, horrific tragedy. It encompasses many more lives—including young lives—harmed or taken through senseless shootings in many places, about two-thirds of them by suicide.
United Methodist churches are asked to join in this national interfaith weekend observance, which may begin with a Dec. 14 kickoff event at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. They can do so through special prayers, sermons, music, liturgy, talks or teachings, fasting, letters and advertisements published in local media, or through other activities such as prayer vigils or public demonstrations. The National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend website offers many suggestions and invites churches to join its online pledge campaign to participate in some way.
Swarthmore UMC in Philadelphia has signed up for the Sabbath. The church is one of several that belong to Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence, specifically to the advocacy organization’s Chester/Delaware County Chapter. They are asking congregations in Delaware County to pray for 34 named persons who died by violence there in 2016 and for their bereaved families.
“We hope congregations will recognize this critical challenge on Dec. 18 and read the names of those lives lost this year to lift them in prayer,” said Swarthmore UMC member Ralph Ciampa, who volunteers with Heeding God’s Call.
“Our Wesleyan heritage rightfully prompts UM churches to step out and exercise community leadership,” said the Rev. David Brown, a retired pastor who chairs the group’s Northeast Philadelphia Chapter. He says it is the only national, faith-based gun violence prevention organization. “But I emphasize that our churches cannot work alone. We need to be collegial and interfaith in our approach.”
Brown said Heeding God’s Call can provide churches with education about the character and impact of gun violence and how guns reach our streets illegally, often through straw purchases. While members can also share information on gun-related laws, policies and needed changes, legislative action is not its main focus.
Instead, part of its focus is to organize advocacy visits and prayer vigils at gun stores allegedly involved in straw purchasing or identified as the likely source of a disproportionate number of guns used in crimes. The group also organizes interfaith prayer and action services at sites of gun murders in order to memorialize victims and demonstrate the faith community’s commitment to addressing and healing this crisis.
Heeding God’s Call also helps churches sponsor “T-shirt Memorials to the Lost,” by hanging on small crosses colorful but empty T-shirts bearing the names and ages of local or county residents murdered by guns. Standing like voiceless sentinels, the t-shirts are eerily poignant memorials that have spread across dozens of church lawns in Philadelphia, Chester/Delaware County, Montgomery County and South Jersey, as well as in Harrisburg and Washington, DC. Their numbing impact is in their sheer numbers when one realizes the devastating extent of gun homicides and suicides, many of which are barely reported.
Heeding God’s Call also has a “No guns in houses of worship” campaign on its drawing board, Brown said, to promote “weapon-free zones,” as the legalization of carrying unconcealed weapons in public areas spreads.
For more information and to support the work of Heeding God’s Call visit http://heedinggodscall.org. Also read UM Communications writer Joe Iovino’s article “Ways United Methodists can take a stand against gun violence” published in October 2015 just after the fatal shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
“When we hear the tragic news of a shooting, United Methodists mourn with the victims and families of those wounded or killed,” Iovino writes. “Many people consider what actions we could take to prevent something similar from happening in the future.”
He suggests some actions, including:
These and other suggestions are included in the UMC’s 2012 Book of Resolutions (Resolution 3426). And some of the ideas reflect the work of Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence, Brown observed.
Moreover, the UMC’s General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) developed a three-session Bible study about the use of guns in committing violence back in 2014. The still valuable study, “Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities,” uses Micah 4:1-4 as its scriptural foundation.
GBCS, based in Washington, DC, just hosted nearly 50 UM clergy and laity from across the U.S. at its Faith and Guns Forum, Nov. 14-16. Many said they wanted to become more effective advocates against violence, and some came from some of the country’s toughest urban areas, like Chicago, which has seen more than 600 gun homicides this year alone. They heard informative presentations and dialogued about the problems they faced back home and their search for viable solutions. Read Sam Hodges’ (UMNS) insightful coverage in “Forum gives chapter and verse on gun violence.”
Also, for a bit more inspiration, read about Pam Simon, a dedicated advocate for gun violence prevention, who found her calling to that ministry when she was nearly killed by an assassin’s bullet Jan. 8, 2011, outside an Arizona grocery store. A longtime United Methodist, she keeps the bullet that missed her heart by a quarter-inch on her desk in a specimen jar. It reminds her to be grateful for every day, and to keep fighting.
Simon, 69, survived the infamous mass shooting that gravely wounded and nearly killed her boss, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords. Six other people were killed and 13 wounded in that tragic attack. Since then, Simon has spoken, written, lobbied, testified and demonstrated for background checks and other measures. Her efforts won her a White House “Champions of Change” Award in 2014. Read Sam Hodges’ recent story about her, “Survivor keeps faith by taking on gun violence.”
The difficult but undaunted struggle to reduce gun proliferation and violence demands the committed involvement of people of faith who seek a more peaceful, humane world. Their shared stories, strategies and supportive organizations, like GBCS and Heeding God’s Call, are powerful resources for this unending campaign. So are joint observances like National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend that can connect them across broad, diverse local and national landscapes to bolster their common endeavors.