Video: Calls from pulpit to join Valentine’s protest against gun violence, Feb. 14 in Morristown

Church and state came together on Sunday with appeals for public support of a Valentine’s Day rally and memorial vigil in Morristown to protest gun violence.

“My prayer on Feb. 14 is that we’ll show some real love, and it won’t be one race, or one this or one that, but we’ll come together and remember the senseless violence [against] every child,” preached Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of Morristown's Bethel A.M.E. Church urges congregants to attend protest against gun violence. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of Morristown's Bethel A.M.E. Church urges congregants to attend protest against gun violence. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The pastor recounted a predominantly black Morristown rally condemning the Florida shooting of Trayvon Martin, and a largely white service mourning the suicide of Morristown High School freshman Lennon Baldwin.

“Death has no race on it. Every mother hurts. Every parent hurts. Every grandparent hurts when a child’s life is taken,” said Pastor Williams, who invited Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman to address the congregation.

The councilwoman co-founded the Morris Area Committee to Reduce Gun Violence, and helped organize the Feb. 14, 2013, rally and candle-light vigil to mark the two-month anniversary of the Newtown, Conn., massacre of schoolchildren and teachers. The committee wants stricter gun controls.

“We hope hundreds will join us at 5 o’clock on the Morristown Green for a rally to call for reductions to gun violence, and also a vigil in memory of all children lost to gun violence,” Rebecca said.

Later in the service the councilwoman collected donations to the committee with Nancy Bangiola, a committee member who also serves as president of the Morris School District board of education and the Morristown & Township Library board.

Nancy Bangiola, left, and Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman collect donations for the Morris Area Committee to Reduce Gun Violence, at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Nancy Bangiola, left, and Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman collect donations for the Morris Area Committee to Reduce Gun Violence, at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Berit Ollestad, a MorristownGreen.com contributor who received a church award for her volunteer work, spoke movingly of a charity mission to Brazilian slum, where it took considerable persuasion to coax a child to give up a hand-made fake gun in exchange for a toy.

“It’s so sad, because they really don’t have any opportunities. And they see these 16- and 17-year olds with semi-automatics, and they have jewelry and cell phones… it’s really come full circle,” Berit said.

Berit Ollestad, center, displays fake gun made by a Brazilian child; she is flanked by Teresa Williams, Pastor Sidney Williams Jr., and Morristown First Lady Mary Dougherty at Bethel A.M.E. Church. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Berit Ollestad, center, displays fake gun made by a Brazilian child; she is flanked by Teresa Williams, Pastor Sidney Williams Jr., and Morristown First Lady Mary Dougherty at Bethel A.M.E. Church. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The Rev. Cynthia Black, rector of Morristown’s Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, followed with a powerful sermon to the joint service.

“Oh, I know. I’m on dangerous ground here, talking about something so political in church. Well I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing on the news that another human being has died…another child of God has died, because we haven’t realized that we regulate cold medicine better than we do guns,” the rector said.

She also recounted the fury of her father, a proud World War II veteran, upon learning that another parent had let her fire a semi-automatic handgun at a private shooting range during a childhood slumber party.

“Guns have only one purpose,” he said. “They kill.”

Here is the full text of Rev. Black’s sermon:

“Remove Our Fear”

A sermon by the Rev. Cynthia L. Black, D.D. The Last Sunday after Epiphany: The Feast of Richard Allen & Absalom Jones. Luke 9: 28 – 43a, Feb. 10, 2013. Bethel A.M.E. Church, Morristown, New Jersey

Heal me, hands of Jesus,

And search out all my pain

Restore my hope

Remove my fear

And bring me peace again.

I don’t know what it is about that song that I love so much, but it touches me deeply… somewhere in my heart. It was a tune that I couldn’t get out of my head when I was in pain and experiencing great fear a couple of years ago after an accident. I sang it over and over again, to calm myself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about gun violence recently… particularly the lives destroyed by it…and wondering why, as a nation, we find ourselves in a place where it is easier to buy a handgun than to register to vote. I’ve been thinking about why it’s easier to buy an assault rifle than to get a driver’s license. I’ve been thinking about why it’s easier to buy a shotgun than to access mental health services. Does any of that make sense?

Oh, I know. I’m on dangerous ground here, talking about something so political in church. Well I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing on the news that another human being has died…another child of God has died, because we haven’t realized that we regulate cold medicine better than we do guns. Do you know how many people—men, women and children, have died as a result of gun violence since the tragedy in Newtown, not quite two months ago? When I started working on this sermon, earlier in the week, I went to slate.com’s website that is tracking gun deaths. From Friday to yesterday, it went from 1633 to 1686.

Heal me, hands of Jesus,

And search out all my pain

Restore my hope

Remove my fear

And bring me peace again.

When I was in the sixth grade I went to my friend Lorraine’s house for a sleepover birthday party. She was turning 12. What I remember of it is that it took place in her family’s rec room in their basement, and that the games we played were a little unusual for pre-teen girls. After a tour of the family fallout shelter (yes, you heard me), we began not “pin the tail on the donkey”, but target practice with some of her father’s handguns.

In addition to a ping pong table and dart board, there was an indoor shooting range in the rec room, and Lorraine’s father taught us how to load handguns, take aim at the paper targets, and fire. What I remember is that I and one other girl were so good at it that Lorraine’s father let us have a special treat– with a few words of instruction, we got to do target practice with one of his semiautomatic weapons. Afterwards, we had cake and ice cream, told ghost stories, and talked late into the night about our crushes on David Cassidy and Michael Jackson, I’m sure.

The next day after I got home I told my parents about the party, proudly relating the part about how I was so good that I got to use the Glock pistol (or whatever it would have been in 1971).

I can honestly say that I have never seen my father as angry as he was that day. To help you understand—my dad was a Republican and a proud WWII army veteran, who was known for always flying an American flag—he was a real patriot. When he got done on the phone with my friend’s father and his ideas about party games for kids, he sat me down for a long talk. He made it clear that he was not angry with me. But he also told me something that was conveyed with such conviction, such absolute certainty, that there was no doubt in my mind how he felt about it.

“Guns have only one purpose,” he said. “They kill.”

There was something about that conversation with my father that I’ve never forgotten. Oh sure, there was the part about guns, with which I don’t disagree, but it was more than that. I heard in my father’s voice something that I can only describe now as moral certainty. He knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how he felt about killing, and the destructive force of guns. And he was able to convey that to me in an absolute, clear and convincing way. For him, on that subject (more so than any other I had seen before in my 12 years, or I ever saw again in the 30 subsequent years that he was alive), it was black and white. Guns kill.

Heal me, hands of Jesus,

And search out all my pain

Restore my hope

Remove my fear

And bring me peace again.

Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, we’re told in today’s gospel reading. He took James and John and Peter. And they talked about a lot of things. In fact, I think we can assume that it was because they had such a meaningful time together that Peter thought they might continue to hang out together. “Master, it is good for us to be here… let us build three booths.” I’m thinking that whatever happened up there on the mountain, Peter wanted to live in that moment forever. But that doesn’t happen, does it? That’s not how the story goes. As tempting as it might have been to capture that moment, to stay in that moment, Jesus doesn’t. He comes down off the mountain and heals.

When we think we’ve found something that works for us, it’s easy to make an idol out of it. It’s tempting to want to hold onto it and never let go. “We know that we are worshipping an idol when a created thing becomes more important than the Creator.”1

Guns, I believe, have become an idol in our country. Instead of putting our faith in the beauty and wonder and magnificence of the created order, we have put our faith in our fears. We have put our faith in guns to keep us safe. We have made guns god, and we are allowing our fears to overtake us. Simply put, we have misplaced our faith, just as Peter came close to doing on that mountain.

Heal me, hands of Jesus,

And search out all my pain

Restore my hope

Remove my fear

And bring me peace again.

Gun violence is a political issue, to be sure. But it’s a faith issue, too. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, recently wrote: “The violence in our country, the violence around the world is most often an act in response to those who don’t have enough. Those who are hungry, those who ache for recognition and dignity, those who struggle for peace.”2 I would only add that violence is also often a result of fear—fear that we are going to lose something, that something is going to be taken away from us, fear of the “other”— those who are different, fear of scarcity, fear of a lack of security, fear of the unknown. Fear eats away at us and ultimately draws us away from God.

I’d like us to sing, one last time. But this time, I want us to recognize that we are all in this together. This isn’t about just me and my fears; this is about us and our fears.

Heal me, hands of Jesus,

And search out all my pain

Restore my hope

Remove my fear

And bring me peace again.

Are there easy answers about what to do about gun violence? Maybe. Maybe not. But I’m very clear that it is a faith issue. As long as we let our lives be ruled by fear we shut God out. And as long as we let the voice of fear speak louder than the voice of love, the voice of peace, nothing will change.

I love that song, “Heal me, hands of Jesus.” But I can’t stay wrapped in the coziness of the feeling it evokes for me. Just as Jesus came down off the mountain and got to work, we need to get to work.

Our world needs healing from a lot of things: healing from gross inequity, appalling poverty, and unfathomable greed. But our fear needs healing, too. May God search out all our pain, restore our hope, remove our fear and bring us peace again. And may we do what needs to be done to make this so.

1 From “Respect for a Father’s Grief,” by Valerie Elverton Dixon, at www.sojo.net.

2 Presiding Bishop’s Lent Message 2013, episcopaldigitalnetwork.com



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