Darkness, Light — and Gun Violence

The people who walked in darkness…

This past week I met many people who regularly walk in darkness.  I attended a two-day Gun violence prevention summit in Washington DC.  There were some two hundred of us from all over the country – advocates, policy shapers, religious leaders – and many survivors of gun violence.  By chance I had lunch with a young woman from Chicago who told me that her sister was shot and killed at age sixteen, and some ten years later her brother was murdered at age twenty-two.  The shooter has never been found.  Her grief has led her to search for her brother’s killer, which inspired her to become a corrections officer at a prison.  Instead of being choked by bitterness and fueled by aggression, she makes a point of listening to the stories of inmates – and developing a fragile community of trust.

… Have seen a great light.

She couldn’t say that the light she sees is all that bright, but it is there:  she says she sees a flicker of light in the eyes of some whose future is confined to a life behind bars; and as she told me her story I could see the light in her commitment to compassion.

Before the vigil and memorial service on the second day, by chance during dinner I sat next to a bishop of a Pentecostal Church in Hartford.  She told me that she has spent the last twenty years walking the streets of the city.  The many gang members she meets call her “Auntie”.  They look for her, an apostle of hope and a bearer of light, in the midst of much violence and darkness.  She keeps at it in her retirement; the only woman carrying out this unique ministry of building relationships with young men who much of the world have deemed to be expendable.

Later, at the vigil service, President Biden came and told the packed church of his own darkness – losing a son to cancer, and many decades earlier a daughter and wife who were killed in a car accident.  He was followed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who over the years has developed a relationship with the many survivors who attend the annual service.  Senators Murphy and Blumenthal of Connecticut also spoke, as they do every year, to tell of how their lives have changed and their commitment has deepened since the Sandy Hook massacre which will observe its tenth anniversary on December 14.

Testimonials were offered by parents of an Uvalde victim, a Pulse shooting survivor, a son of the Buffalo shooting victim, and survivors of the Oxford, Michigan, Parkland and Sandy Hook school shootings. 

Offerings of music flanked a somber parade – as 122 survivors from 22 states came to the microphone, , held up a picture of their loved one, said their name and the date they were gunned down.  It was a continuous wave of pain – and the corresponding darkness felt like a pernicious dust that could never be washed off.

And yet there was light.  At the end of the service the whole assembly held up candles, offering small beacons of hope in all that darkness.  To me, the candles symbolized the honoring of grief, and offered the possibility of healing.  Life-saving relationships have been built among survivors – as they are members of a community none of them ever wanted to join, and from which much of the world tries to keep a safe distance.  When a survivor’s life is overtaken by darkness, as inevitably happens, their compatriots stand with them in the soul-consumingshadows – offering support, hope and pathways toward the light.

In an Uber on the way back to where I was staying, the driver was playing a radio station featuring a preacher who maintained that in the last twenty years men have lost nearly 80% of their testosterone.  “We don’t have men anymore”.  He maintained that giving a teenager ready access to the internet is worse than heroin.  He cited the tyranny of the government and public education, which, taken together, are fiercely committed to indoctrinate young minds with hatred for America.   And on and on it went – a soliloquy of fear.  It was emotional and spiritual whiplash from what I had just experienced at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

His was a false darkness.   His rant put up a firewall in front of the real darkness which lurks behind.  His intent, which seemed to work, as my driver said that the disembodied voice made a lot of sense to him, is to package fear as truth – citing a wild litany of misinformation,  which will then shut down any attempt to pursue a truth that can only be unearthed from the darkness.

Fear can be manipulated.  Darkness cannot.

The vigil and memorial service was a journey into real darkness.  In that depth of pain, grief was given a voice, and stories of loss were heard and honored.  It was a liturgy that opened up pathways for healing.

And through the words, music, prayers and processions, light was kindled.

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