Exploring Gun Violence: A Reflection on the Connectional Church

Two days before the first anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, a group of Presbyterians gathered to talk about gun violence.They lit three candles, each representing ten thousand people killed by gun violence every year, and they read three obituaries, each remembering the life of one taken too soon. They prayed for the families of the victims, the perpetrators, and our shared brokenness.

They represented three congregations in the Lake Michigan Presbytery and they were ending a month-long commitment to meet, pray, and educate themselves about things like “straw purchasing” and the “gun show loophole.” They lit the candles mostly as a reminder that the conversation was about more than statistics and learning a new vocabulary.

Their involvement began after attending a screening of the documentary “Trigger,” a film created by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. The screening was sponsored by Westminster Presbyterian Church of Portage and ended with a panel discussion of community leaders, including representatives from the police department, mental health services, and myself, a clergy person and member of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.

 When the discussion group met shortly after the “Trigger” screening, they did so without knowing where they would end. They made a covenant to meet four times and to be open to the Holy Spirit’s movement, and nothing more, but by the end of that road, they were compelled to move forward. Emily Dood reflected the group’s collective feeling when she said: “I don’t see how we can just go on with our lives as usual after learning all we have learned without taking action of some sort. I know I can’t.”

Taking action is exactly what the group is doing as of this writing. We have been meeting for almost a year now and have grown in number, denominational diversity, and community partnerships. We have been in conversation with ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community, a Gamaliel Foundation affiliate) about implementing David Kennedy’s “Ceasefire” program, organized another screening of “Trigger” at a public library, and planned an ecumenical worship service to take place in November, where we will include an offering of letters calling on legislators to pass sensible gun control reform.

 For me, the overarching story here is the Connectional Church, and what we can do rather easily and joyfully when we join with others who share the same concern. I’ve found that when churches explore issues of social witness and justice, they very often cannot get past one-time-only events and surface level conversations. For some it is because the very act of exploring the social issue is controversial, but for many others, the inability to move from education to action is the perceived impossibility of making any kind of difference. The weight of the issue becomes paralyzing.

For me, the real joy over the last year has been working with a group excited about coming together over traditional parish lines and understanding the availability and abundance of resources that the wider Church has produced. By making use of curriculum and suggestions from the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, and the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, we’ve never been unsupported in our work. We’ve adapted materials as we’ve needed, but we’ve never been lone rangers. And I really believe that’s made the difference between throwing our hands up in frustration and staying the course.

Needless to say, we haven’t moved any mountains, but we also haven’t “lost anyone” on our team since beginning the “action” part of the journey, and that gives me a lot of hope. We’re still evolving, still forming our identity, still trying to figure out how to be most effective, but we’re working from solid ground tilled and nourished by a cloud of witnesses, and ultimately that is what will keep us going.

-Rev. Sara B. Dorrien

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Presbyterian Mission Yearbook.