Lenten Meditation on the Violence Caused by Firearms
In this season of much Lenten introspection and prayer I found myself in a conversation about gun control. The background was of course the most recent massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Florida. I was at a non-church board meeting of an agency whose mission is the health of California’s communities. In the board’s investment and finance committee a board member brought forth the motion that the board establish an investment screen that would prohibit it from investing in companies that manufacture firearms. We were not of one mind, but the conversation was thoughtful and respectful. The motion was passed in the committee and then processed on to the full board for its final determination. It was when the motion came to the full board that I felt the heavy weight of the decision.
The same level of civility was expressed in the meeting of the full board as it had been in the investment and finance committee, but the words of one board member pushed an emotional button within my spirit that brought forth an outpouring of memories and even trauma that I had long ago pushed to almost forgetfulness.
When that respected board member referred to the investment screen motion before us, he stated that in his opinion the motion was a “knee-jerk reaction” to the most recent shooting in Florida. While I had been processing what I wanted to add to the conversation, his comment led me to a most unexpected place; to that place of bearing heart and soul.
I told him that he had pushed my buttons when he referred to the matter before us as a knee-jerk reaction. It was of course a very dismissive statement, quite uncharacteristic of this colleague and the spirit of our board meetings. I knew he felt deeply, but he also made me aware of why I felt so deeply about the matter as well.
I shared with him and the board some of the things I have experienced due to the impact of guns on families, communities and even churches. Since then I have remembered other things that have made me wonder why I forgot them in the first place. I believe our minds have a way of helping us to forget certain traumas so that we aren’t paralyzed emotionally. The personal trauma I have experienced because of gun violence is small in comparison to that of others, but a lens through which I am seeing the world today with grave concern.
A knee-jerk reaction is usually made in the moment and can be thoughtless, often without care for the consequences, and sometimes leading to actions that one regrets the next day. This was not one of those moments of decision-making. In the U.S. the impact of unharnessed gun use against persons has been long, treacherous and destructive beyond death. Just in the last 20 years we have experienced the deadly shootings and killings of hundreds of people from Columbine High School in Colorado, to Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, and now to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. There have also been the shootings at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the shooting at Club Pulse in Orlando, Florida and the massacre at a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. And, we should not forget the killings by firearms of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Oscar Grant, Patrick Harmon and 12-yr-old Tamir Rice. I am deeply troubled by the suffering and loss of life that these killings by firearms have caused. Deadly harm and trauma caused by firearms is also a personal and vocational matter for me as a religious leader. The button my fellow board member’s knee-jerk comment pushed, released my own memories of suffering and loss.
This coming June will be 34 years since my brother Paul was murdered. The death in-inflicting instrument was a gun. I lost my 27-year-old brother. My siblings and I also lost our parents as the death of my brother emotionally triggered an early onset of Alzheimer’s in my mother, and my father gave the last 4 years of his life to a desperate search for my brother’s body and those who had murdered him. But it was not only my family’s personal tragedy that made the memories surface.
I am now in my 42nd year of ministry having served across the Southwest and Western regions of the country. Without exception, every place I have served has been negatively impacted by the use of firearms. The most vulnerable, the poorest and the marginalized, suffering the deepest impact. Some years ago, I served in a community where more than half of the families I was called to serve lived in a neighborhood that the police themselves had named “The War Zone.” Not even the police would show up in this community. It has not changed to this day. I remember that if I happened to be in the neighborhood visiting church families after dark, they would become nervous and begin to tell me that it was time for me to leave. At first, I wondered what this meant. Had I offended them in some way? Had I over-stayed my welcome? I quickly learned that it was something more serious.
At dusk the families in the neighborhood would begin to gather in their children and lock their doors because soon on any given night there might be gun violence. On one of my visits when I had carelessly stayed too long, the mother of the family insisted that her eldest son walk me to my car. I could not convince her that I would be careful and would be alright. Her son walked with me encouraging me to walk quickly. We were almost at the door of my vehicle when I heard a sound I had only ever heard before in movies – the whizzing sound of bullets. I quickly got in my vehicle and told the young man to run home. I left as quickly as I could, my heart filled with fear and the guilt caused by my ability and desire to run and leave this war zone behind while knowing that my beloved church members had to stay behind and face the danger, night after night, after night.
I remember visiting a church family that had been absent from Sunday worship for several weeks. I had learned that the father had lost his job. They lived in an isolated area of the community on top of a mesa. When I arrived at their home I was surprised to see the children in the middle of a school day. When I inquired of the children why they were not in school, the oldest child told me that there were problems in the family and their father was in a bad place. He was such a perceptive child for one so young. I knocked on the door of their long, dusty, dilapidated mobile home. The mother came to the door and the exhaustion and the troubled look on her face confirmed her young son’s report to me.
She told me it was not a good day for me to be visiting them, but I told her I was worried about them and she opened the door and nervously stepped aside so I could enter their home. As I looked to my left I saw the husband sitting in an old armchair holding a gun. He was clearly drunk. As the woman felt my fear she began to weep as she said to me, “This is why I didn’t want you to come in Pastor. He is bound to hurt us and himself.”
This father and husband was not a drunkard or a violent man, but he was desperate. The weight of the world was upon his shoulders as he attempted every good way to support his family to no avail. He had earlier told me that he felt useless, emasculated, and defeated. I didn’t know what to do, but I asked him if I could sit with him. He nodded his consent and I was grateful that I could sit down and steady my shaking knees and pacing heart. I worked harder than I have ever worked to be that calm presence that I had learned that pastors need to be for those they seek to help in troubled times. I sat in silence with him, breathing deeply as I prayed within me. Then guided by the Holy Spirit I gave witness to what I knew of him.
I told him as gently as I could that I knew him to be a good person and a good father; a hard-working man who gave his all for his family. And then I told him that I knew that his hurting his family whom he loved so dearly would destroy him. I knew and even more, God knew, that he did not want to hurt his children. As I finished my short and simple words to him he began to sob. He picked up the gun and I motioned to his wife to be still. He then handed me the gun and begged me to get rid of it. My heart still races as I remember.
Then there are the guns made by U.S. firearm manufacturers that are dumped into Mexico, Central and South America in exchange for drugs, or in bungled Justice Department counter-narcotics strategies like Operation Fast and Furious. It is these firearms that exacerbate the violence in the countries of this region that forces many to migrate. It is all too often U.S. manufactured firearms that are used to kill migrants who are deported back to these countries and that kill even U.S. border patrol men and women and even Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents. I have met the victims that are left behind to mourn and piece their lives back together again, and you may be surprised by the fact that you have probably encountered them as well.
The stories abound in my heart, but I will end with the story of visiting a pastor and his family three years ago to comfort them in the death of their young college-aged son. Just days before he had been gunned down in front of their home. He had stepped out and was standing on the sidewalk right in front of their home when a group of young men in a car went by and shot him with a semi-automatic gun. The mother had heard the shots and reached him first. He died in her arms. They never learned why he had been killed that way.
I grew up on a farm where we had guns. My father, uncles, and brothers hunted. I am not ready to take on the U.S. Constitution’s 2nd Amendment, but in this season of Lent in which we Christians strive to have the mind of Christ, I am ready to take on the cause of ending gun violence. Too much life and commitment to preserving humanity has been lost already. I agree wholeheartedly with our United Methodist Church’s Resolution, #3428, Our Call to End Gun Violence. Click here to read the full Resolution. I encourage you to study and put into action our United Methodist stand in response to gun violence. I leave you with these quotes from our Resolution:
Jesus’ call to his followers to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) is tied to intimate relationship with God, and echoes God’s dreams for peace for all of creation as expressed in Micah 4:1-4……….As followers of Jesus, called to live into the reality of God’s dream of shalom as described by Micah, we must address the epidemic of gun violence so “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” Therefore, we call upon United Methodists to prayerfully address gun violence in their local context.
Shalom, Peace, Paz,
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño