“We must face the harsh realities of gun violence in America if we are to have any hope of fixing the problem,” said the Rev. Steve Camp to 150 worshippers during a Martin Luther King Day celebration at Hartford’s Faith Congregational Church where he serves as senior pastor. Reminding those in attendance of the recent mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown as well as the long history of violence in American’s cities, Camp said “The church cannot be silent.”
And on this wintry January afternoon, the church was not anything but silent. Wonderful music, deep prayer, multi-media presentations, inspiring preaching and a compelling call to action are the hallmarks of this annual MLK observance sponsored by Faith Congregational Church, Amistad United Church of Christ, and the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ. This year’s service was no exception. Entitled “Gun Violence: We Must Face It to Fix It,” it featured a keynote address from the Rev. Dr. Valerie Bridgeman of Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA.
“As a nation,” said Rev. Bridgeman, “we know violence intimately. It has become near kin in our society.” In response to the epidemic of violence that plagues both urban and suburban communities she offered a litany of questions from the Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah: Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? She said it’s natural to ask why in the wake of tragedy. She said it is understandable that we ask why violence happens. But she also challenged those in attendance to move beyond asking why. No matter the reason why violence happens, no one deserves to be a victim of violence. No one. “We need to care more that it has happened than why it has happened,” thundered Rev. Bridgeman. It’s time for concerted action to end violence.
She then spoke about her early years in ministry working with young gang members. She draws many lessons from those years, including the need to relate directly to young people—to speak to them about what is happening in their lives, to offer them a reliable, safe adult presence and to challenge them not to risk engaging in acts of violence or, as she put it, “to not get dead!” Building community that is inclusive of all children and young people is critical to preventing violence, said Bridgeman. “People don’t kill folk when they really are in community.”
Other speakers during the service included State Representative, Brandon McGee, Hartford youth worker, Devonne Pollard, SEIU 1199 Vice President, Rob Baril, and Mothers United Against Violence leader, the Rev. Henry Brown. Rev. Brown delivered his typically searing critique of gun violence in Hartford, reminding the congregation that 340 people have been murdered in the city since 2000. He said, “I mourn for those 20 babies who lost their lives in Newtown. But we’ve been hurting for years and nobody has listened to us. Maybe if someone had listened to our pain, this tragedy could’ve been prevented.” He said violence is an issue of social justice. “We can’t give any grieving mother a sense of closure in our city because we aren’t seeking justice.” He admonished his listeners to demand change from their elected officials.
Gun violence is certainly a difficult topic to explore in worship, but these church leaders felt called to explore it in light of Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolence. As in years past, it was a challenging and inspiring service , a potent reminder of those words of Dr. King “Whatever career you choose for yourself, make a career of humanity.”