By Peggy Eastman
Undaunted by snow that turned to rain, nearly 20 bishops led an estimated 300 clergy and lay people on a Stations of the Cross prayer walk March 25 from the White House to the U.S. Capitol. The bishops, joined by the Rt. Rev. Dinis Sengulane of Mozambique, protested a culture of gun violence in the United States and urged Congress to pass tougher gun-control laws. Marchers followed a large wooden cross held high.
“The cross is a very powerful symbol; we as Christians are not going to go away,” said the Rt. Rev. Ian T. Douglas, Bishop of Connecticut.
Douglas said the idea for the prayer walk emerged about four days after Adam Lamza killed 27 people, including his mother and 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last Dec. 14.
“We knew we were called upon to do something,” Douglas said. “Isn’t Holy Week a time when we can stand up and say, ‘No, that is not the end’?”
Marchers traveled from several states, including Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia. Some walkers wore green and white ribbons to honor those who died in Newtown. The Rev. Judith L. Rhodes, rector of St. Paul’s Church in Fairfield, Connecticut, told TLC that raindrops falling during vigil seemed like God’s tears.
A liturgy booklet led marchers through Holy Week meditations of Christ’s trial and death.
The Rev. Kathie Adams-Shepherd, rector of Trinity Church in Newtown, wrote in one meditation: “We are not innocent of the blood of others when we do not stand up against violence.”
“Each year gun violence claims the lives of more than 3,000 children in the United States,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori wrote in another meditation. “It is abundantly clear to me, as I travel to communities across this country and engage in conversation with people from many walks of life, that Americans have begun to find the resolve the grapple with the complexities of violence in our culture.”
“We’ve had enough of violence,” said the Rt. Rev. Laura J. Ahrens, Bishop Suffragan of Connecticut. “We serve the Prince of Peace. I’m proud to be an Episcopalian today.”
“This is not a question about other people. This is about us,” said the Rt. Rev. James E. Curry, also a Bishop Suffragan of Connecticut. “[Gun violence] has to stop. … Jesus Christ faced down violence and died because of it.”
The Rt. Rev. Mariann E. Budde, Bishop of Washington, said there are “common sense ways” that Americans can reduce gun violence.
She called for universal background checks for all Americans who want to buy guns. “This is a simple thing to institute,” she said, including at gun shows.
Budde said she was “very disappointed” that a renewed ban on assault weapons, has been dropped from pending legislation in the Senate. But “the cross lobby is stronger than the gun lobby,” she said, and “for the first time in 20 years we have gun control legislation.”
There is a groundswell of support for gun control from “moms, PTAs,” and “people of faith who don’t always agree,” Budde said. “We need to change things. We are praying with our feet.”
After completing the 14th and final Station of the Cross, marchers gathered at the Library of Congress across from the Capitol for remarks from leaders in Congress and government, as well as Bishop Sengulane.
Wearing a heavy metal cross made from former weapons, Sengulane said 800,000 guns and instruments of war have been surrendered since Mozambique’s civil war (1977-92). “We are asking human beings to behave like human beings,” he said. “We actually came to the conclusion that to have a gun in your bedroom is like having a poisonous snake … that snake is there to bite.” If the snake does not bite an enemy it will bite a family member, Sengulane said.
The bishop told TLC that he believes the United States is unique in its problem of mass shootings because of easy access to guns. “Let us unashamedly and proudly be peacemakers,” Sengulane said. “I’m sure we will succeed. God is on our side.”
“Under the law of the day the Prince of Peace was put to death,” said U.S. Rep. John B. Larson (D-Ct.), who has co-sponsored gun-control legislation. He said 91 percent of Americans “think universal background checks are a no-brainer.”
Larson said the issue of gun violence “can be put off no longer.” He urged marchers not to buckle before those who oppose gun-control legislation. “Do not listen, do not despair,” he said. “Jesus fell three times, but he got up.”
“You’ve chosen a very important week to take your stand,” said U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). “For the first time in decades there can be no question” that the country wants to take action on gun violence. “It’s as if we’ve come to our senses.”
The gun lobby has flourished because “it had no public enemy,” she said. “Only we can end the gun lobby’s free ride. All that is needed is a worthy opponent. We are stepping forward, we are stepping up and this time we will not step back.” She said that people now expect their Congress to take action against gun violence: “In their hearts people know that it is we who are culpable if we take no action.”
The Rev. Brenda Griton-Mitchell, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, thanked the marchers, telling them they spoke for powerless children. “I would rather see a sermon than hear one any day,” she said. “This is indeed a ministry.”
“We can sin through our acts of omission,” she said. “Thank you for not sinning. … Be bold. Don’t let anyone tie your tongue.”
Marchers received fliers on reducing gun violence when they return home. “Can we accept in others what we fear in ourselves?” said the flier, prepared by Eva Bunnell, senior policy adviser to Larson, and the Rev. Molly James, secretary of the Diocese of Connecticut. “If a ‘Newtown event’ were to happen next time in my (our) community, what will I regret not having done? How does the reality of the empty tomb, the reality of God’s love being more powerful than the violence of the cross, inspire you to help overcome violence?”
Image by Jay Malin/Diocese of Washington