By the Rev. Jemonde Taylor and Ms. Cassandra Deck-Brown, Retired City of Raleigh Chief of Police
In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:13, 14
Christians are baptized in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Baptism with water is the initiation and rite of passage through which individuals become Christian. Baptism brings our adoption as children of God through the washing away of our sins. Baptism brings salvation. After baptizing with water, the clergy takes Holy Oil and anoints the forehead of the newly baptized with these words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” The word “marked” has a negative history for Black people. Enslavers marked or branded Africans they owned, marking their body as property. Some 19th Century American religious leaders said Black people bore the “mark of Ham in the biblical book Genesis:” the “dark skin and wide nose,” with no soul for salvation. Today, Black people are marked with the bullseye as victims of gun violence. Yet in the context of baptism, new life comes from death and destruction. The word marked previously meant slavery, cursed, without soul, and death. Marked in the context of baptism becomes the promise that God marks us as God’s own forever. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. In baptism, God gives us the opportunity to see a better heavenly reality during troubling times.
Gun Violence Prevention Awareness and Activities
June is Gun Violence Prevention Month. Unfortunately, with the many tragic events we continue to see across our communities and throughout the country, it seems as if every day should be a day of awareness. Too often we hear the words, “Enough is Enough!” However, like any activity that appears constant but has negative consequences – just repeating the words, “Enough is Enough,” is simply paradoxical in nature. It is not enough. The actions and intentional efforts that can follow such a brief, yet profound statement necessitate the energy of the village – Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church.
At the beginning of June 3, 2023, multiple sources including the Gun Violence Archive reported that 269 mass shootings had occurred in the US since January 1, 2023. Mass shootings are defined as any shooting occurrence whereby four (4) or more people are shot – whether killed or injured during the same incident. This does not include the other shooting events involving fewer people, which seem to occur daily somewhere in our communities and throughout the country. Sadly, those numbers seem to be in perpetuity and growing daily. Unfortunately, we are seeing generations of our youth and adults alike who are impacted by the actual, or visual stimulations of trauma induced by their personal, or indirect experiences brought on by the reoccurrence of violence in our neighborhoods, schools, public venues, houses of worship, video games, the media, and social media. For some, this reality of gun violence has struck our families, friends, co-workers, fellow parishioners, and classmates. Domestic violence, suicide, the lack of conflict resolution skills, and the escalation of small events have too often become the gun violence story on the evening news. These events coupled with the recent changes in gun legislation enacted by our own state’s elected officials leave our hearts heavy. COVID undoubtedly has been one of the greatest public health concerns many of us have ever seen and perhaps many had not seen since the polio and influenza outbreaks in previous decades. However, over time, we have seen this surge in gun-related injuries and deaths. This public health crisis has plagued our communities for years and all generations are affected. Gun violence leaves all parties and their families suffering.
As Saint Ambrosians, we must be vigilant in thought, word, and deed. In THOUGHT, let us remain steadfast and intentional in our prayers against gun violence. Let us not become numb to the violence we see around us and in the news. There may be people we know who are perhaps suffering due to this very issue. What we know is that violence is traumatic, and the trauma is real. If your heart is troubled by any of what is happening, please don’t suffer in silence. Please know that there are opportunities, services, professionals, resources, and pastoral help available to you.
Know that there are professional services that specialize in trauma-informed care and post-traumatic stress counseling. There are support groups and other events and activities in our community that promote Christian spiritual practices as well as Eastern mindfulness and positive well-being. Let your WORDS speak healing into existence. There are counseling services that enable you to talk openly about what you are going through. Help is available for you, and it is important to know and understand that such feelings and experiences are more common than we may realize. Others are dealing with similar stressors. It is important to know that YOU ARE NOT ALONE! Reach out to the clergy should you seek a more spiritual counseling experience on this journey.
Additionally, the Diocesan website has several resources as well. We are blessed to have one of our very own Saint Ambrosians serving on the Diocesan Gun Violence Taskforce. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to Cassandra Deck-Brown as well if you have questions about gun violence prevention.
Our DEEDS can reflect both our individual and collective/corporate efforts to reduce gun violence in solidarity throughout the year as well as during this nationally recognized month. On Sunday, June 25th, each of you is invited to wear orange during the church services – in church and on-line. Please consider wearing anything orange – from clothing to just a simple ribbon pinned on you. Let us be united in this moment and stand together against gun violence.
We here at Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church want to make sure that we visit the topic of church safety periodically for obvious and perhaps other reasons, which can include topics about safety in the church to safety steps that can be taken at home. This may also afford other church partnerships within the Diocese to discuss, share, listen, and help to heal and comfort others during these concerning and heart-heavy times.
We want you to know that you are loved, and that there are resources, and opportunities available now and even more to come. Due to the pandemic and maybe even because of the increases in violent events, church members in many cities have physically withdrawn from visiting their church home. Please know there is and will always be a seat for YOU! We hope you will participate, have a voice, and be a part of the various events and activities that are happening in and around Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church’s immediate and extended community.
OUR CHURCH’S ACTION AND RESPONSE
Prayer is always a Christian’s first response. Prayer is conversation with God. Prayer begins with God who is always communicating and always speaking. Yet we are not always listening. People complete this cycle by responding to the Holy Spirit who is speaking to your heart and praying to God. There are countless times Saint Ambrose has prayed the Litany Against Gun Violence in the context of worship. It was in 2018 when our church prayed by name and number the largest American mass shootings, beginning with Columbine in 1999. It took nearly ten minutes to pray the list. There was such a heavy, emotional pall over the church during the Prayers of the People that Sunday. We not only use words to pray with our mouths, we also pray with our eyes through religious icons.
Colossians 1:15 reads, “He [Jesus] is the image [icon] of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Icons are a form of Christian spirituality. Praying with icons is a way of praying with your eyes. Icons are visual prayers. Icons are the “windows into heaven.” To embrace the icon is to embrace the theology of the Incarnation, Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh. Saint Ambrose has a 3 ft. tall icon of Our Lady of Ferguson and All Those Killed by Gun Violence written by Mark Doox, a Black American icon writer. The icon shows the Blessed Virgin Mary, Black with smooth skin, and Jesus in Mary’s womb, with his hands raised in the ancient prayer position that closely resembles the “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” slogan from protesters in Ferguson, MO. A bullseye crosshairs target marks Jesus’ body. There are two bullet holes to the left and right of Jesus that form the circles containing the ancient Greek letter initials for Jesus Christ. Fr. James Martin, the Jesuit theologian, wrote this commentary in Sojourners Magazine on Our Lady of Ferguson. “Our Lady prays for all who are targeted by gun violence: African-Americans, the poor and marginalized, and police officers. All are her children. All are our brothers and sisters. Let us ask Our Lady to pray for us.” Saint Ambrose displays this icon for special prayer devotion after some mass shootings.
Saint Ambrose partnered with Raleigh Mennonite Church in 2016 to host Raw Tools, a non-profit that takes guns and transforms them into gardening tools. It is a modern take on the prophet Isaiah’s vision in 2:4, “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Those present saw someone spend four hours melting and molding a gun, turning it into a gardening tool.
Saint Ambrose’s vestry has taken a lead on addressing gun violence. The Episcopal Church’s governing body passed a resolution at the 2012 General Convention “recommending that all Episcopal dioceses and their congregations declare themselves a gun-free zone. [Resolution 2012-D003] The Diocese of North Carolina under the leadership of the Rt. Rev. Samuel Rodman III declared that all diocesan office properties as gun-free zones and encouraged congregations to follow suit. The vestry at the July 17, 2022 meeting passed a resolution to adopt the diocesan policy and make Saint Ambrose’s property a gun free zone. This means no guns concealed or otherwise are allowed on the premises.
Christians are people of the resurrection. Our ministry is to share the transforming love of God embodied in Jesus Christ to the world. Baptism equips us. The Holy Spirit marks us. God sends us. Jesus is with us.
Suicide & Crisis Lifeline – Phone: 988 – Website: https://988lifeline.org/
Episcopal Diocese of NC – https://www.episdionc.org/gun-violence-prevention/
Bishops Against Gun Violence- https://bishopsagainstgunviolence.org/
American Counseling Association https://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/gun-violence-trauma-resources
Anti-Defamation League: Discussing Hate & Violence with Children- https://www.adl.org/resources/tools-and-strategies/discussing-hate-and-violence-children
Everytown: Gun Violence Trauma- https://everytownresearch.org/
Moms Demand Action – https:/momsdemandaction.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness – https://nami-wake.org/raleigh-mass-shooting-resources/
NCDHHS: Keeping Families and Communities Safe – https://www.ncdhhs.gov/public-health-approaches-reduce-violence-and-firearm-misuse-leading-injury-and-death/open