20th Anniversary Pilgrimage to Columbine

Deanna Hollas, PPF Gun Violence Ministry CoordinatorThis reflection comes to us from Deanna Hollas, our Gun Violence Prevention Ministry Coordinator.

June 8-9 was Wear Orange for Gun Violence Awareness. I want to share with you a new awareness I had around the issue of preventing gun violence. In late April, I traveled to Denver, CO to participate in a pilgrimage to remember the 20th anniversary of the tragic shooting event at Columbine High School and to be renewed and energized in order to continue working to end gun violence in our country. The weekend of events was sponsored by several faith organizations in the Denver area.

The first event was a panel of speakers that shared the work they are doing in the Denver community to end gun violence. One of the organizations presenting was GRASP (Gang Rescue And Support Project). A young man named Nate told us his story:

One day as he and a friend were walking to a convenience store, he was jumped by a group of boys from school and robbed. Nate was mad and full of revenge so he went home and got his gun out of a shoebox in his room. He went back to the store and a shootout resulted.

Nate is currently serving a 5 year sentence in juvenile detention. This panel was the first time Nate had been out in public in 2 years. Nate is 16 years old.

A trauma surgeon in the audience offered an apology to Nate for how we as a society have failed him. We have failed him by allowing the conditions that he was raised in – poverty and the violence that results from it – to exist. We have also failed him by allowing easy access to guns. When the leaders of GRASP were asked what this roomful of concerned people could do to help, the answer they gave surprised me.

They said we could best help Nate and others like him by working towards dismantling white supremacy. By white supremacy, they do not just mean the open racial hated we are used to associating with the term. Instead, they are referring to the political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings. It is white supremacy that says some lives are more valuable than other lives and keeps folks living in poverty and violence.

I then traveled to the next event at Iliff School of Theology. Here another panel presented on the theme “American Culture of Violence: Denver African American Perspectives.” Rev. Dr. Jennifer Leath, Iliff faculty in Religion and Social Justice and Pastor of Campbell Chapel AME, spoke first. Her anger was palpable through her calm and composed voice as she said,

“Racism is America’s favorite and primordial form of violence. Racism eats its own children eventually. Whiteness produced Columbine.The shock of Columbine was not that kids shot up a school – it was that white kids killed white kids. When white kids kill other white people, things must be really bad.”

Dr. Leath proposed that the solution to our problem of violence and in particular gun violence is to dismantle white supremacy and privilege, teach love with confidence and humility, and to fight racism with the awareness that the parasite of resentment grows along with it. Another panelist, Bishop-elect Kym Lucas said,

“White men don’t realize how white supremacy negatively affects them. They don’t realize how they are affected by the contempt and fear that leads to a cultural of violence.”

Whiteness is a cultural phenomenon that has as its foundation the idea of superiority. We must create spaces where people are not safe from truth. Hearing hard truth is a holy moment. A good place to start with dismantling white supremacy is by having holy conversations. Living Room Conversations’ Race and Ethnicity Conversation Series is a resource that is good place to start as it provides a model for learning how to listen to hard truths. As the Gun Violence Prevention Ministry Coordinator with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, I look forward to working with you to end the plague of gun violence in our country.

— Deanna Hollas
deanna@presbyterianpeacefellowship.org