Less than two weeks after I was consecrated a bishop in December 2012, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. happened. Episcopal bishops throughout the country started Bishops United Against Gun Violence. Over 100 bishops joined.
We have worked for gun safety laws on the state and federal levels. As a group, we have led processions through Chicago, Austin, Salt Lake City and Washington D.C., calling for an end to the public health crisis of gun violence. We have invested in gun manufacturers to urge them to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We encouraged our churches to pray for the end of gun violence because prayer is always a prelude to action. The Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew here in Greenfield have conducted those prayer services.
Every month, Trinity Episcopal Church in Lenox prays a “requiem liturgy” for the victims of gun violence in the United States. Every month, over 3,000 Americans die from gun violence. The priest at that church collects as many names as he can from public records. He usually gets 1,300 or so of the 3,000. As part of the liturgy, the names are read out loud. It takes about 45 minutes to read them all. I have taken part in this service. Reading those names is a sacred and sad experience.
It is impossible to write this column for the Greenfield Recorder without acknowledging the murder of Meaghan Burns, a member of the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew. I know the tender work of grief continues for her family and for this community. Long before Meaghan died, her family took part in those Sandy Hook prayer services and was active in efforts to address gun violence. Now we might honor Meaghan’s memory by taking up this cause and calling it what it is — a public health crisis.
The causes of gun violence are complicated. There were 417 mass shootings in the United States in 2019, according to data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. But almost 70 percent of all gun deaths are suicide. And there are far more gun-related deaths in urban settings. I was present at a public witness in which a Springfield teacher said the safest time of her students’ day was in the classroom. And even that is not safe anymore. I passed a home in one of our cities that had a sign on the door: “Please, don’t shoot. Children live here.” Yes, the causes of gun violence are complicated. But does “complicated” mean we give up? People of faith don’t give up because something is complicated!
Right here in the Pioneer Valley, so many organizations are working hard to address the public health crisis of gun violence, including Moms Demand Action, the Pioneer Valley Project, the Mass. Coalition Against Gun Violence, and the B-Peace for Jorgé Campaign. (B-Peace was organized by the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts after 19-year-old Jorgé Fuentes was shot and killed while walking his dog in Dorchester. Jorgé mentored children and was a youth leader in his church.) Consider supporting these organizations as a way of engaging in this holy work.
Let’s end this column in prayer because prayer is always a prelude to action. Our neighbors to the north (the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire) pray “A Lament for a Culture of Gun Violence,” written by their bishop, the Rt. Rev. Robert Hirschfeld. Here is part of it:
“Most Holy God, source of all being, of all hope, of all life. We confess our fascination with guns and weapons that have for far too long claimed the lives of the undefended, the vulnerable and especially children who have been wounded and killed in random terror in a nation founded on the promise to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Have mercy on us.
“We confess that we have ascribed to the facile lie that ‘the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’ when what we need are hearts that hear your Gospel message of love and forgiveness. Have mercy on us.”
Have mercy on us. And may what we ask for be fulfilled by our personal commitment to ending the public health crisis of gun violence in our communities.
Douglas Fisher has served as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts since 2012. He is the spiritual and canonical leader for more than 50 congregations and ministries from the Berkshires to Worcester County. On Twitter: @dfisher_WMA