“And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:2)
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)
These haunting words bear witness to the pain of an exiled people, here the northern tribes to whom Rachel and her sons Joseph and Benjamin belonged. Jeremiah’s words, spoken on behalf of God, are the distilled heartbreak of a people whose lives are defined by loss and suffering. Rachel’s flowing tears fall on the soil of exile, soil that she does not know, soil that does not bear good fruit. She weeps for all that was lost: her home, her culture, her people, her way of life, all the sons and daughters taken far too young by the horrors of war and exile. Rachel weeps for home, where life was simple and tears were more often joyful than bitter.
It was the bitter tears of mothers in Savannah, Georgia, who have lost their sons to gun violence that motivated Butler Memorial Presbyterian Church (a predominately black congregation) and the church I serve, First Presbyterian Church (a predominately white congregation) to begin the “Leaves of the Tree” initiative to respond to gun violence. The relationship between Butler and First has grown over many years as we have prayed, studied, worshipped and joined in ministry together.
In June of 2014, during our annual joint Sunday school class, we used as our study guide the PC(USA) resource, “Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call.” When the study concluded, a committee of members and pastors from both churches was formed and we began to wrestle with what we might do to respond to the epidemic of gun violence in our community. We decided to hold a community worship service where we would lift up the families whose lives have been devastated by gun violence, pray for peace and unity in our community and seek to make connections with a diverse group of people whose hearts ached, like ours, for the many mothers who cannot be comforted because their children are no more.
We incorporated a tree planting as a part of the service to memorialize those who died and to bear witness to the hope of new life. Our guiding Scripture was Revelation 22:2, “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” The committee quickly expanded to include representatives from the City of Savannah, the Savannah Tree Foundation and the Park and Tree Department (who helped us identify a city park in need of trees). Funding for the project came from Savannah Presbytery’s M.K. Pentecost Ecology Fund and from the Jolly Foundation, both of which support causes aimed at preservation or improvement of the environment.
The interdenominational and interfaith service included our friends from Synagogue Mickve Israel, Masjid Jihad Mosque, Asbury Memorial Methodist Church, the Bahá’í Community of Savannah and Mayor Eddie DeLoach, among many others. The second annual “Leaves of the Tree” worship service was held at Nathanael Greene Park on January 20, 2018. Participants were invited to write the names of victims and prayers for the grieving families and for our community on paper leaves and place them in the ground with the trees.
As the stirring hymn, “God Weeps with Us Who Weep and Mourn” (Glory To God, #787), was sung, we came forward to place our leaves in the ground, affirming, even in our deep sadness, our shared and abiding hope that one day God “will wipe every tear from their eyes” and “mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21:4).
However, with each new victim of gun violence we are reminded of how far we are from that promised day of comfort. As I write this article, our community is reeling from yet another senseless act of violence. This time, it’s the death of a 20-year-old man who was shot and killed by police while they were serving a warrant on him for the suspected murder of a 24-year-old man who was killed a few days earlier. Immediately following the funeral service, a 15-year-old boy shot and killed another boy in the parking lot. He was 12. Tears upon tears. We are a community full of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandmothers, with swollen eyes and souls traumatized by the scourge of gun violence.
“From whence cometh my help,” we wonder, who will stop the violence? “My help cometh from the Lord” (Psalm 121) we affirm, but also from the Lord’s servants whose faith in God inspires them to act. A God who asks us the same question: Who will stop the violence? A God who weeps with us and knows each tear we shed, but requires of us to act justly, to lift our voices in love and righteous anger to proclaim enough is enough, and to work together for peace so that the countless tears of sorrow shed shall not be shed in vain.
Like Rachel, Linda Wilder-Bryan is a mother well acquainted with bitter tears. She lost her only son Lawrence Bryan IV to gun violence on August 7, 2015. He was 23. For Linda and her husband Lawrence Bryan III, each day since Lawrence’s death involves weeping and mourning and, like most mothers who lose a child, Linda refuses to be comforted because her child is no more. However, she is determined to make sure that her tears and those of the many other families whose children have been snatched away by gun violence will not be shed in vain. And she does this by turning her sadness, anger and heartbreak into motivating energy to work for good, to work for a beloved community where all our children have enough to eat, attend good schools, have adequate and safe housing and no longer live in fear of being gunned down in the streets. A community where all children have the freedom and means to dream with hopeful expectations of a bright future.
Linda graciously shared her story of sadness and hope with us on that cool January morning when we met to pray as one people, remembering how much we have lost to violence and reminding ourselves of our shared humanity and responsibility. The “Leaves of the Tree” initiative was never intended to be only a worship service, or annual tree planting, or a feel-good event to say “at least we did something.” Clearly, one worship service will not solve the complex problem of violence and its many contributing factors: poverty, inequality, lack of living wage jobs, inadequate schools, easy access to guns, lack of stability at home and neighborhoods where bad choices abound. However, trees were planted and if properly nurtured, will grow. Come spring, the leaves will shoot out as a sign of new life and we pray they will indeed be leaves of healing. Trees were planted and so too were hopeful seeds of beloved community. But as Linda Wilder-Bryan is quick to remind anyone who will listen, if the bitter tears of Savannah’s mothers are not to be shed in vain, those seeds must be nurtured. Which means that all of us who weep and mourn with them must be willing to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Will Shelburne is associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia.