As they gathered in one of America's major cities with a reputation for violence, some of those attending the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) watched a denominationally produced documentary on gun violence, and then tackled how to address the issue.
“It’s insane really," said Saul Green of Ceasefire Detroit, which works together with law enforcement and community service groups to impress upon young people the price they will pay for criminal activity. "Why are young people killing each other over mundane things like shoes, or cell phones?”
“We have them talk with victims of gun violence, like the mother in Trigger who suffers because her daughter is gone forever,” he said.
Green was speaking about Trigger: The Ripple Effect of Gun Violence, produced in part as a response to the 219th General Assembly (2010) resolution “Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call” and to shed light on the growing issue. The documentary is the result of a collaborative effort of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and the Compassion, Peace, and Justice Ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Tuesday's screening and discussion was sponsored by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, and featured a six-member panel including Detroit Police Officer Kevin Briggs, a member of Broadstreet Presbyterian Church.
“Forgive me, but watching this just now, it catches me,” he said, choking back emotion. “Kids are killing kids. I see dead people every day.”
The panel listed their laments: No background checks on gun purchases. Gun trafficking. Stolen guns. The “straw purchases,” one person buying a gun for somebody else. The National Rifle Association lobbying effort on behalf of the gun manufacturers.
"As Christians, when we allow politicians to be bought for guns to flow freely, we are directly opposed to the values of Jesus Christ,” said J. Herbert Nelson, director of the church’s Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C.
“I can say this as an African-American man: When white children are killed and no gun legislation is enacted, the political spheres have been shut down in this country.”
The panel also spoke about dealing with poverty – the lack of education and economic opportunities – and the difficult issue of mental illness.
I’m struck by the lack of value that Emmet felt for his life
Yet the panel exuded hope, and belief in the resiliency of the human spirit.
Emmet Mitchell, founder of Milestones Agency, which serves African-American males from 5 through fatherhood, was shot at for the first time when he was 15.
“It was my badge of honor,” he said.
Mitchell dropped out of school, joined a gang and did drugs. Even though someone tried to take his life when he was 19, he was willing to take the chance of getting killed.
"How much value did I place on my life?" he asked.
Gradually Mitchell realized his violence was a learned behavior; it didn’t have to be a response to conflict resolution.
He grew in relationship to God, began to reflect on the kind of legacy he wanted to leave his children, the impact he wanted to have on his community.
“The women in prison tell me that long before crime happens, guns are a huge part of their lives,” said Mary Lynn Stevens, a volunteer sponsor for National Lifers of America who works with individuals in prison to reform their lives and prison culture.
Stevens said that women also told her that being threatened by guns, and the fear of being targets, was normal to them.
“I’m struck by the lack of value that Emmet felt for his life,” said Laurie Kraus, coordinator for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which works with first responders to communities suffering after mass violence shooting.
“There’s always an initial outpouring that comes, shattering any differences we have,” she said. “It gives me hope. But we must find a way to translate this into will and courage to sustain change – and then do the hard transformation of addressing the gun violence which has become such a part of daily life –in our inner cities, and across America.”