Bishop Chip StokesSome 1,500 Episcopalians and allies gathered early Sunday morning, June 28, in Salt Lake City,  to take a stand against gun violence.  Part prayer meeting, part hymn sing, part personal witness, part social action, “Claiming Common Ground Against Gun Violence” sponsored by Bishops United Against Gun Violence, had been a year in planning and coincided with the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  “It must stop!” Bishop Eugene Sutton of Maryland told the crowd.

Some 70 bishops, clothed in scarlet vestments led a procession of people that stretched three blocks long on a half mile walk from The Salt Palace Convention Center to Pioneer Park.   It was an impressive sight.  As they walked, participants chanted, Out of the deep I call unto thee, O Lord, consider well the sound of my longing soul.  Clearly the longing is for a country free of gun violence which kills 30,000 Americans each year.

“Is it possible that this epidemic of violence is the equivalent of war?” Bishop Sutton asked the crowd.  His question hung in the air.

Bishop Scott Hayashi of Utah followed Bishop Sutton to the microphone. He is a gun violence survivor.  He was 17 years old and working in a record store when a gunman shot him in the abdomen at point blank range.  Bishop Hayashi spoke of the anguish his family experienced, especially his father, as he lay in an intensive care unit for weeks.  “My father’s hair turned gray,” he said.

Bishop Hayashi was not the only speaker who moved the crowd with a personal experience.  Carolyn Tuft told the heartbreaking story of her daughter’s death just before Valentine’s Day in 2007.  “I’ve been given three minutes to speak with you,” she said.   “I thought, that’s not a lot.  But I realize it only took three minutes for my life to change forever.”  She and her 15-year-old daughter Kirsten had gone to the Trolley Square Mall on February 12, 2007, to buy a Valentine’s Day card when, three minutes later, a gunman entered the store.   “Get down, Mom!” her daughter shouted at her. According to Tuft, these were the last words she ever heard her daughter say.   Shot herself, Carolyn Tuft watched as the assailant put a gun to her daughter’s head and pulled the trigger and then shot Tuft again.  Today Carolyn lives with lead poisoning and other permanent injuries as a result of the shooting.   She also lives with the permanent anguish of her daughter’s violent death—completely unnecessary, but all too common in a country in which it is still too easy to obtain a gun.  “I’m here to protect you from being the next one,” she said to those gathered in Salt Lake City Sunday morning, “It’s time to get involved.  This issue didn’t affect me until it affected me.”

Claiming Common Ground Against Gun Violence afforded Episcopalians who want to get involved an opportunity to take their concerns to the street. At a debriefing Sunday night, T.J. Geiger, a member of Episcopal Peace Fellowship from Texas summed it up.   “It combined education, action and prayer.”

Though Claiming Common Ground received excellent local media coverage, I can’t help believing that an NRA rally of equivalent size would have been covered nationally by FOX, CNN and The New York Times.  This is frustrating.

Using political and financial influence, the NRA and the gun lobby continue to dominate this issue in our nation.  If the longing for a country with less gun violence is to be realized, it is critical that the church join with other allies in more events and actions like Claiming Common Ground Against Gun Violence.  “Black lives matter,” Presiding Bishop-elect Michel Curry preached to the crowds.  “Black lives matter, because all lives matter!”   But guns and gun violence continue to make life in this country cheap.

Bishop Chip Stokes

The Diocese of New Jersey