Saturday, May 9 was God Before Guns’ 2nd annual March and Rally across a downtown bridge in Cleveland. Our theme this year — Protect Our Kids from Gun Violence. As is God Before Guns’ practice, several other organizations joined together with us for this event. You can read their names at the bottom of the event flyer. The crowd of 100+ was made up of a good mix of returning marchers and first timers. With signs held high and American flags waving, we were on our way on a gorgeous warm sunny Saturday. The spirit of the day was as bright as our new safety green t-shirts!
Joining us this year were some students from Facing History New Tech High School. I knew about this school after being asked to speak to the 11th grade several months ago when they were preparing for a class debate about the 2nd Amendment rights vs. Community Safety. This is a school where students are encouraged to stand up and speak out for justice, peace, and diversity. The curriculum is designed so its diverse student population learned how to connect history to their own moral choices. The goal is not just to graduate students but to create more informed citizens of its graduates.
I remembered asking the 11th graders about their own experience with guns. Had anyone in their families or among their circle of friends been shot. Killed? Yes. Had they even seen a gun. Recently? Yes again. If they wanted to get a gun for themselves, would they know how to get one. Every hand went up. Yes. So as we prepared for this year’s March, I asked if there were any students who’d experienced gun violence in their family who might want to speak at the rally.
Yes, there was. A young girl whose brother had been shot and killed by Cleveland police just weeks before. Her 18-year old brother made a bad decision back on a March night at 2 am. He was caught trying to leave a neighborhood grocery store after breaking in and stealing cigarettes and some Canadian coins. He was alone and unarmed. No weapons found at the scene. His sister decided she wanted to speak, and she worked on her remarks together with her teacher. As we’d expect from any teen-ager, she wanted some of her friends to be there with her. Did we have a role for them to play too? Yes, we did.
We began the Rally with reading the names of all Cleveland-area boys and girls 18 years old and younger who have died from gun violence since the Sandy Hook shootings in Dec. 2012. It’s an arbitrary place to start in a city in which it seems that kids die all the time, but that date is significant to us because it was that school shooting which led to the birth of God Before Guns. There were 30 names to be read. She wanted to be sure she was the one to read the name of her brother which came near the end of the list. She also wanted to be the first one to read. She read the first name in her quiet and quivering voice. She read the 2nd name. That’s my cousin, she said. She read the next name. I know him too –– he’s a friend. She hesitated before reading the next name and looked back at her friends who then gathered even closer to her. They were already nervously awaiting their turn to read more names. Were they fearful that they too would find familiar names on the list? Could happen. 23 were teen-agers. Suicides. Homicides. Undetermined. The others? A 5 year old. A 2 year old. A 12 year old. A 1 year old shot and killed by his 3 year old brother. A baby 16 minutes old. The young man reading the name looked back at me as if to say, that can’t be right. 16 minutes old and dead by gunfire. Already orphaned as his mother was now dead too.
If any of us were taking this event lightly, we were no longer. There was no minimizing the reason why we were there. I can tell you after 2 years of doing this work, it’s not easy getting people to attend gun violence events. It’s difficult even when people agree with what we’re doing and support the message. It’s a hot-button issue, and it can also be a dangerous issue. The other side is armed. And the other side has the right to openly carry loaded weapons right alongside us at our rallies. We were grateful there was no such counter demonstration on Saturday. But for any of us who might have been hesitant to be there, these students — especially this young woman — showed us courage. It’s not easy to speak in front of 100+ people even for most adults, but these young people gave it their best. But even more than that, if gun violence is a difficult issue to talk about, these kids live it. Daily.
Their school motto is: I will make a difference. They did. No one was the same after hearing them. But it mustn’t stop there. We cannot smile and applaud them on Saturday only to go home and ignore this issue until this time next year. We cannot unhear the names of these children who have died. We cannot close our eyes without seeing these brave young people whose shaking hands held the microphone. We cannot call ourselves people of faith and wait until someone else decides this is important. We are called to be leaders in reducing the number of gun deaths in our neighborhoods, schools, city, and country.
How can you become involved? How can you make a difference? I personally invite you to become part of God Before Guns. Check out our website or like us on Facebook. If you want to know more about us, send us a message. Ask to be put on our mailing list. Invite us to speak to your organization. Please know that we are not the only organization worth checking out. Any one of the organizations that endorsed our March and Rally is a peace-making, justice-seeking, actively engaged organization that is worth your attention and support. Find where you best fit. This is a complex issue that threatens to end far too many lives too soon and to destroy the future of far too many of our children and youth. It will take every single one of us. But any single one of us can do something. Think about Facing History’s motto. Promise it first to yourself and then together with others …
I will make a difference.
Pastor. Parent. Activist.