April 20, 1999. I had been out of high school for almost a year when the country stood stunned at what unfolded at Columbine High School.
Twenty years ago, it seemed like this was a one-time tragedy. Time has passed and we now know that this was not a one-time tragedy; it has become our normal. I finished high school by the time things changed, and I was through college before it was apparent that this was a tragedy that was going to play out over and over again.
On December 14, 2012, I had just finished my seminary finals and took a celebratory trip to Barnes and Noble with my then preschooler. She sat playing at one of the building tables and I glanced at my phone. I slowly put the pieces together: another shooting, this time an elementary school. I felt hot tears ready to spill over. I began to move us toward the exit. I just wanted to go home. If elementary school children aren’t safe anymore, where are we safe? Since then the answer has become apparent: we aren’t safe anywhere — shopping malls, concerts, Walmart, movie theaters, schools, universities, work places, churches, synagogues, any place of worship… all have been riddled with gun violence.
My daughter has been doing lock down drills since she was 5 years old. When she was 8, she told me how to stand on the toilet in the stall if you are alone in the bathroom during a lock down. Just last month as we watched Harry Potter and someone came running into the dining hall yelling, “Troll in the castle,” she asked earnestly, “Mom, are they having a lock down?” I pray every day as she and her friends get on the school bus that I will find them all there safe at the bus stop again that afternoon.
My word today is for the church and for the world. For our world, I would like to see some political reform that actually changes something. Like so many things, I know this isn’t an easy fix, the problems are multifaceted, and the potential solutions are many. I would like to see some movement on any front that takes us toward reform.
In the church sense, I think I would leave if we suddenly had armed security at the church. I do not want guns in church for a thousand reasons. Yes, I want my people to be safe. And yes, I want the doors unlocked. I would also be OK if I never had to attend another “active shooter” training. Run, hide, fight: the commands echo in my head as I look out over my faithful people each Sunday. The ones who can’t run because their joints don’t work like they used to. None of us could hide the way our building is designed. We would be reduced to throwing Bibles and hymnals and anything else we could find. I do not want to spend time this week working on our emergency action plan, but I will. I can’t believe the amount of time I have spent thinking on these things.
So church, it is time to stand up. It is time to remember Isaiah 2:4: “He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” It is time we band together to demand change, so we are never sitting in our pews on Sunday morning praying over the names of young ones gone too soon. I know that in 2019 this seems so political, but this is also about faith. We follow a Savior who died a horrifically violent death, but rejected violence in how he lived his life. It is about leading the way in ending violence, ending senseless deaths of innocent people.
My own ideas about gun reform have less to do with a political party or ideology (I don’t belong to one, because I can’t find one that I like as much as I like Jesus) and more to do with how my faith shapes my worldview. Ideally, I would love a world without guns (humans did live a long time with out them). However, I know that is not going to happen any time soon. I have lived rural places where guns were part of life because you might need to protect your livestock from threats. I fall somewhere in the middle; I don’t want to take away the right the bear arms from those who find it valuable. I do want to see better background checks. I do not think some of the weapons available are needed by your average person; a musket is a very different weapon from a revolver and from a semiautomatic weapon. These sound like reasonable starts to me.
Mostly, my ideas are a bit selfish. I want to be able to go to a shopping mall and not constantly be scanning for exits. I want to stop thinking about the fastest way out of the movie theater. My child is much faster than I am. I don’t ever want to tell her again: “If mommy says, ‘run,’ you run as fast and as far as you can, and you don’t wait for me. I will find you later.” I never want to pray again the names of children slaughtered in school. I never want to watch the bus drive off and pray silently that my baby comes home to me alive and without violence-induced trauma. I don’t want to learn the lockdown drill song from babies. I don’t want to hear about my kid standing on a toilet in a bathroom stall.
Please church, lets raise our collective voice, and say, “Enough!”
REBECCA GRESHAM-KESNER is pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Medford, New Jersey. Outside of church and family life, you can find her in nature, finding fun ways to be creative or asking awkwardly deep questions of people she just met.