Do Lives Matter? Or just guns?

Vigil with Chiu

California Assemblymember David Chiu, whose district includes The Bayview, speaks to Vigil participants

Candles lit, holding signs that read SPREAD LOVE, NOT VIOLENCE or COMMUNITIES AGAINST GUN VIOLENCE the group stood waiting to start. But nearly half of those expected were missing. It seems there had been a shooting several blocks away. One dead. A lot of police involved, traffic blocked.

 

The vigil to protest gun violence, delayed by gun violence, eventually got underway.

This was on a recent wintry night in San Francisco, when a group from Grace Tabernacle Community Church in the city’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood gathered for one of the regular vigils they have long held in memory of those killed by gunfire. It is a long list. The Bayview holds the unenviable record of having the most deaths and injuries from gun violence – by a large margin – of any area of San Francisco. It would be almost impossible to find anyone in the community who has not lost a family member, friend or acquaintance to gunfire; yet it is still home to generations of good people who continue to work for a better, even gun-free future.

Joining the Grace Tabernacle vigil group were a number of friends from Calvary Presbyterian church in the city’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, an affluent community which holds the unenviable record of having the city’s highest suicide rate. Some by gunshot.

Once the latecomers made it past the scene of the latest shooting, the group walked candles-aloft to a nearby corner where a young man had been killed not long ago. A collection of burned-out candles in colorful holders, some now broken, surrounded the parking meter at the spotVigil memorial.1 where he had fallen; the police had given up on it and let the site remain as a memorial. His name was Otis. No one knows who shot him; possibly he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Grace Tabernacle’s Bishop Jackson said a prayer and the group slowly moved on.

Occasionally they sang. (This Little Light of Mine . . . We Shall Overcome.) The wind repeatedly blew out candles, but there always seemed to be a flame somewhere. One candle-holder said to another, as she re-lit her candle by his, “I was shot in the shoulder on that corner a block away.”

The day after the vigil, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., presumably confident that no troubled person would ever be a student at Liberty, urged his students to arm themselves.

Also on that day the Senate once again failed to pass gun control measures, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill that would have prevented people on terrorist watch lists from being able to buy guns with which to commit terror.

Several days later, some who had attended the vigil heard John Weems, at Calvary Presbyterian, address the issue of gun violence. Weems had been part of the vigil, and made a biblically appropriate metaphor of the candles being blown out by the wind, but constantly re-ignited. Darkness, he said, cannot overcome the light.

At the end of his sermon Weems lifted a stack of 8 x 10 sheets about three inches thick, and a few helpers distributed them among the congregation. There were 353 sheets listing the date, location and number of people killed or wounded in each of the mass shootings (four or more killed or wounded) in the U.S. this year according to the only-in-America website shootingtracker.com. Another 45 sheets bore the names of the known 2015 victims of gun violence in San Francisco, the city named for a compassionate saint.

Gun collage

It would be impossible to know how many firearms are in private hands in this country, but it’s safe to say at least a few hundred million. Some of them – “assault weapons,” “semi-automatic rifles,” “sporting guns” by whatever name you choose – can kill more people faster than others; any of them can kill or maim. A wide range of weapons were used for the 353 mass shootings of 2015; all of them succeeded in wounding or killing human beings. The three sheets left to this distributor read:

DURHAM, N.C.; 8/21/2015. WOUNDED: 8. DEAD: 0

ROSWELL, N.M.; 8/21/2015. WOUNDED: 1. DEAD: 3

CINCINNATI, OH; 8/21/2015. WOUNDED: 5. DEAD: 2

It’s hard not to think about how much darkness might be prevented by having a few less guns in the U.S. Those who know that darkness best continue to light candles . . . and hope.

candles

 

 

 

On Light Overcoming Darkness

MLK on darkness

While governments talked of war and security last week, and innocents in Lebanon, Kenya, France, Afghanistan and elsewhere buried their dead, faith communities around the globe struggled to find ways to make sense of it all. Or at least to respond. Places of worship opened their doors, labyrinths were crowded with walkers, friends called friends.

One response in one corner of the world came on Sunday, November 15 in the form of a service of words and music by Muslims, Christians and Jews at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church which this writer was fortunate to attend. It is, in all probability, exemplary of other responses across the planet.

Calvary pastor John Weems noted, in welcoming a sanctuary filled with visitors and regulars, that ever since the beginning of history there have been times when it seemed the world would end, “that darkness would overcome. But in fact death and darkness do not get the last word.”

And the next word came from Fatih Ates, San Francisco & East Bay Director of Pacifica Institute: “Peace and blessings on us all.” Ates gave the Adhan, or Muslim Call to Prayer. Conveniently for the non-Arabic speaking members of the congregation, an English translation of the Adhan was published in the bulletin. (It begins with repetitions of “God is Greater,” continues through bearing witness to core precepts and ends with “There is no god except the One God.” Believers and nonbelievers alike might embrace the notion that Somebody Else is still in control.)

Later in the service, Ates spoke of his deep faith, and of how that faith – Islam – “strongly condemns acts of violence. Every terrorist act,” he said, “is against universal values and human values.” He emphasized these truths with quotations from the Qur’an. (Chapter 5, verse 32; Chapter 4, v 93, and Chapter 49 v 13; readers are invited to look them up.) “Terrorism has no religion, no faith” Ates said; “we must fight against extremism.”

Among other messages:

Rabbi Lawrence Raphael of Congregation Sherith Israel referred to the last line of the Kaddish, the prayer said at Jewish funerals and occasionally at other times: “May God who makes peace in heaven . . . make peace upon us.”

Calvary pastor Joann Lee, speaking to the children, suggested that in scary times they “look for the helper;” because there are always helpers, something borne out by both scriptural references and secular reality.

San Francisco Interfaith Council Executive Director Michael Pappas spoke of the “solidarity and prayers of people of many faiths” (locally including 800 San Francisco congregations) that would ultimately overcome darkness.

And for the prayer, another Calvary pastor, Victor Floyd, sang the “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord have mercy) familiar to Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox and other Christians — in Urdu, the language of Fatih Ates’ native Turkey.

Finally, there was a moving moment of light. California Assemblymember David Chiu, a member of Calvary who went from social justice work into politics a few years ago, explained the Presbyterian custom of “passing the peace,” greeting friends and strangers. candlesChiu spoke of San Francisco as being a city on a hill, a city of light, and everyone, having been given candles on entering the sanctuary, raised their lighted candles in a room in which the light until that moment was dim.

The act of raising a candle into the gloom, lifting some light of hope, making one small statement against injustice may be primarily symbolic, but it’s a start.

And proof that light can drive out darkness.

 

On Being Instruments of Peace

dove of peaceWatching the families of people killed at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church repeatedly declare their forgiveness of shooter Dylann Roof was, for many including this writer, somewhat surreal. Seriously? Set aside the rage, grief, unbelief, and go straight to forgiveness?

For some faith traditions, that is indeed possible.

Also possible is the response for good coming out of Roof’s act for evil: removal of an emblem – the Confederate flag I recall seeing on some of my ancestors’ gravestones – from public spaces, and serious confrontation of the racism firmly embedded in U.S. culture. Not just the south, not just in police forces, not just in politics; in the U.S. culture.

One small part of the attempt to confront, and hopefully address, those issues in one small piece of the culture began recently when John Weems, pastor of mainline (if hardly traditional) Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, got to talking with Bishop Ernest Jackson, pastor of Grace Tabernacle Community Church across town in San Francisco’s largely African American Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood. This conversation led to a group of mostly white Calvary members leaving their 10 AM Sunday service early to join the 11 AM worshippers at Grace Tabernacle. (We were saved from embarrassing Caucasian-ness by one tall African American and one third-generation Chinese American.)

Calvary’s Minister of Spiritual Care Victor Floyd was preaching before the group set out – on a day the long openly gay Floyd said he never thought he’d live to see – and admonished the group that worshipping with Pentecostals would mean staid Presbyterians (the Frozen Chosen, we are commonly called) would have to raise their arms above the level of their waists.

Well, who knew?

Grace Tabernacle dancer

Grace Tabernacle dancers

The incredibly gracious Pentecostals greeted the chosen-frozen Presbyterians with exuberance. And a forgiveness for our frozen-ness that would probably be understood only by people like the survivors of the Charleston massacre.

“Forgiving is not forgetting,” Bishop Jackson said. “We have little control over what we remember or what we forget.” But he reminded the uniquely mixed group that it is wise to remember “the wrong that harbors no malice.”

There was a great deal of praise music – hands waving, or for the more frozen, clapping, higher than the level of one’s waist. There was some extraordinary dancing by three costumed young Grace Tabernacle women. There was talk about the burden of unforgiveness. And there were parting words of the sort that will bring exactly the change and reconciliation Dylann Roof (for whose immortal soul a lot of great Americans are praying) sought to prevent.

“Thank you,” said John Weems, “for helping us thaw out.”

“We must disconnect,” said Ernest Jackson, “from hatred and racism.

“We are instruments of peace.”

One can only hope.