The purpose of the PPF Peaceseeker Award is to give well-deserved recognition to those who have made a serious commitment to working for justice and peace, particularly work that has influenced Presbyterians and the PC(USA). It is also intended to inspire others to get engaged in this work that is central to our calling. In recent years we have also included our non-Presbyterian partners working with us for a more just and peaceful world.
The award is annual, and the presentation of the award happens at the PPF Peace Breakfast during General Assembly in even years.
The 2019 Peaceseeker Award of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship honors the First United Church of Oak Park and the Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church, two Chicago congregations, for their pioneering ministries to prevent gun violence. The joint awards will be presented in June 2020 at the gathering of the 224th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Baltimore, MD.
Read below about First United Church of Oak Park and here about the Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church.
A PPF conversation with First United Church of Oak Park Members:
PPF: Congratulations on receiving the Peaceseeker Award. To my knowledge, you are the first large “big steeple” church that has ever received it! How did your church get started in gun violence prevention?
Sherlynn Reid: Our church is a large, strong congregation filled with movers and shakers. The church provides support and resources to members who feel a call to act, such as we have on gun violence prevention. The church is directly next to Austin, a west Chicago neighborhood with some of the highest levels of gun violence.
Lois Thiessen Love, Chair of Waging Peace: It started in 2015 and 2016 as the congregation grappled with its commitment to move from charity to trying to change the systems that continue injustice, such as gun violence and racism. Our Mission team put up a chart in the church lobby to poll members on which justice issues they wanted to work on. Everyone had three dots to put by issues and gun violence received three times as many dots as any other issue.
So we held a “get-acquainted” five-session program on gun violence. We used the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship Gun Violence Prevention Congregational Toolkit and we also invited speakers for each session from Chicago anti-violence groups and Rev. Dr. Barbara Wilson from the Presbytery of Chicago. We learned about legislation and programs addressing prevention of gun violence, programs to provide
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
help to families of gun violence victims, and to reflect on who we are as Christians called to seek justice and care for others in the context of gun violence. Sandy Jefferson: Our church cares deeply about this issue. Lydia has preached about gun violence prevention in the spiritual life, in legislation and in the marketplace. It’s an ongoing awareness. We can’t give up.
PPF: You started with a focus on victims. Tell us about the Scroll.
Sandy: One thing that was helpful to us on both gun violence and anti- racism is finding ways to engage through education on what is happening. We did it by researching and sharing the names of victims. We made it visual in the scroll, which was a long roll of paper in our church lounge all year as it grew. On the scroll, a different group in the church took turns writing the names of those killed each month—the youth group, every group took a month. We unrolled the scroll at our Maundy Thursday service, hanging it from the cross. The scroll helped people understand what was actually happening. Now the scroll feels like a sacred object to us—-all the names, our gatherings to learn the stories of the people.
PPF: What are some of your other projects?
Rev. Lydia Mulkey, Associate Pastor of Education: We participated in March for Our Lives and showed up for our church’s students who were walking out at our high school. We held Youth Group discussions about gun violence prevention following the Parkland shooting.
We are a joint Presbyterian and United Church of Christ congregation. Our UCC denomination had made a t-shirt for March for Our Lives that said “Faith Over Firearms.” About 25-30 us wore the t-shirts and made signs and went together on the train to the Chicago March for Our Lives event. The next day was Palm Sunday, so we paraded into worship in the t-shirts and with all the signs from the march. It was a Palm Sunday procession not just with palms but Palm Sunday as a protest procession, standing against violence today, as Jesus took a stand against the violence of the Roman Empire. We lined the sanctuary with the March for Our Lives signs and all wore orange. The pastors wore orange stoles. It was a very moving worship service.
See a video here of the Palm Sunday March for Our Lives Protest Procession at First United of Oak Park.
Sandy: I work nights at UPS and I’m a church member. We used to do weekly peace prayer vigils. Now we do it twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring. In the vigil last month, we read the names
and ages of all those killed in September. An interfaith Muslim community came and vigiled with us. Peace is the central message of First United Church of Oak Park. We work on training folks for peaceful communications, to help families and neighbors get along better.
Lois: Sandy leads the singing at the vigil. It was held at 7pm Sunday eve on the front steps of the church for one hour. We had speakers tell about loss and survival. Someone came from Chicago Survivors, a program
providing support to families of gun violence victims. They find that kids have PTSD because their siblings and friends have been victims of gun violence. Sandy talked about a cousin who was shot 11 times and survived and about the years of recovery and how this still affects his family.
Sandy: When I first started, I said, “Look at how brave these people are for peace—protesting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.” Now, we are part of this and we are saying about gun violence: we can do better. We have also inspired others to jump in and do something about gun violence.
Lois: Every December we are part of Congregations for Peace, which includes synagogues and local churches for a vigil to remember the Sandy Hook school shooting. We all share hosting it. One year we served hot chocolate afterwards and hosted a fair for people to visit tables set up by non-profit groups and activists to share what they are doing on gun violence prevention.
Bob Haisman: At church I have been involved in gun violence prevention because of Christ’s message. In the political realm, I have been involved with our representative who was promoting gun violence prevention and we got involved to help. We helped make phone calls. He had been working on a bill for 16 years in Illinois to register all gun dealers in Illinois so that state enforcement of current gun laws could be done since the federal government wasn’t doing it. That finally passed after 16 years. Our political activism on this bill was facilitated by our membership with the Illinois Coalition Against Hand Gun Violence. The Coalition notified us of when to take effective action to promote the bill at the committee level with a legislative witness slip or when to make calls to urge legislators to vote.
For me it ties into the peace vigils and gives a concrete way of doing something. There are about 4,000 gun dealers in the state of Illinois, mostly with few inspections done by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Now our state police do the inspections. The goal is to enforce laws against straw buyers and huge multiple purchases for unlicensed resale.
Bobbie Kmiec: We hope that everyone in the church will do something. I see how busy parents are these days, most families with two jobs, feeling helpless to act on their faith because they are so busy just holding it all together. We need to offer small things that are easy to do, baby steps—-postcards, letter-writing, things that young families can do to make a difference.
PPF: You have worked to change how guns are manufactured and distributed. What’s that about?
Lois: We have learned that, to make an impact, we had to join with others. We have worked with a community organization, United Power and with the Illinois Coalition Against Hand Gun Violence. As a member of United Power for Action and Justice, which is an affiliate of a national group, Metro IAF, we have joined the Do Not Stand Idly By (DNSIB) campaign that highlights the improvements gun
manufacturers can make in their products and practices that would reduce the number of gun-related deaths in the United States.
“Smart guns and smart locks” could use technology to recognize the owner of the gun and can prevent theft, accidental shootings and suicides. A big goal is for gun manufacturers to make guns safer and smarter and to responsibly manage the gun distribution marketplace. The DNSIB campaign is urging governments to join the Gun Safety Consortium that establishes testing of user authenticated locking systems and then build a market for them. Studies have estimated that over 400,000 guns are stolen each year from homes and cars and later turn up in crime scenes. Smart guns and smart locks can make us all safer.
So far this campaign has made these achievements: Metro IAF has taken the Gun Safety Consortium initiative nationally. Mayors in Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Maine, and elsewhere have bought into it. We had a recent gathering of over 1,000 people to encourage the Chicago mayor to support it. Chicago Mayor Lightfoot pledged to work with United Power.
PPF: First United of Oak Park has done a great deal of work at the intersection of race, poverty and gun violence. What have you learned?
Lois and Sandy: You have to stand at the intersection. You don’t get to pick. All of this gets compounded and we have to pay attention. Some of our members work in an agency called BUILD, a center in the Austin community to support kids, doing tutoring and mentoring. For example, Pete Todd retired from business and started helping at BUILD almost every day. We also have a tutoring program in the church that alternates locations between the church and the Austin neighborhood. This is a group of children and families who are working to build resilience. Our Youth Groups do “Birthdays at the Blvd.” This is a project to honor the homeless staying in a shelter. We also have started making House-to-Home Kits that pull together what families need when they move into an apartment: sheets, microwave, kitchen staples, etc. We are working now on five kits.
Sherlynn Reid: We’ve learned that it’s important to discuss race openly —that people need to be able to express their feelings and to ask questions. I’m now 83 years old and have been a member here for about 30 years. For over 27 years I was involved in government as Director of Community Relations for the Village of Oak Park. My job was to enforce fair housing. I met with realtors and bankers—a lot of those realtors and bankers were members of First United. I encouraged them to make sure that people of color could get housing all across the community. We checked the banks to make sure they were doing Fair Housing Loans. We worked with realtors to show housing throughout the community to all races and not to identify any area of the community by race. Today we have church members in the political field, residents of the village, trustees.
Katherine Thurman: My work has been on Adult Education on gun violence and the impact of racism. I have been a church member for 20 years and raised my kids here and volunteered with children’s programs and then youth programs. Now I am working on Adult Education, Sunday School and action. I was involved in sharing a documentary that was done about our local high school, Oak Park and River
Forest High School, on the impact of racism on the high school. We had a weekly discussion circle and I learned that a lot of us white people need to take our blinders off before talking about racism. We are exploring the 1619 program by journalist Nicole Hannah Jones on the four hundredth anniversary the first enslaved Africans coming to North America. It offers a way to re-understand our history and includes a study program for all parts of the community—schools, churches, etc.
Lois: Our pastors and members understand that the disproportionate gun violence in the black community is an artifact of the historic systemic oppression and disinvestment, which creates poverty and lack of resources, which, in turn, creates the survival strategies of gangs and drugs. It is not an inherent characteristic of the black community. The interventions we seek must reduce violence in the neighborhoods facing the most violence, not just to make our own community safer.
Sherlynn: We don’t talk enough about the differences and the sameness in terms of race. We should do more. As we get new members, we need to continue giving new language to talk about race. It’s ongoing because we have so many patterns that sustain the separation in our lives. Even though the church has been active for integration and justice, you have to pay attention. It’s multi-level.
PPF: You’ve also focused on how gun violence impacts children and youth.
Bobbie Kmiec: I’m a retired High School teacher and have been a member for about eight years. There are lots of retired teachers in the church. I was horrified by our lockdown drills at schools. It was 20 years after Columbine, and still there were no changes. Then Las Vegas, Parkland and on and on. So many people felt helpless. I decided to jump in and do something about it. I took the Oak Park Education Series for five weeks and that was how I learned about the gun violence prevention work. Lois is our cheerleader. She nudges us on.
Lydia: Yes, children. We have learned how to talk to children about this issue. When there are mass shootings, our children’s sermons take a cue from Mister Rogers [PPF Peaceseeker Awardee in 1994]. We encourage the children to always look for the helpers. We tell them that their feelings about the violence are OK to feel. Mister Rogers is a great guide for talking to children on hard issues and on giving them an action they can take. They wrote notes to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and we mailed them. It helps children to not feel so helpless and vulnerable when they hear about these shootings. It is important for churches to acknowledge the feelings of children and to help them process their feelings.
Bobbie: We are in this for the long haul. It has to be baby steps to make change. We went down to Springfield to the state capitol to support three things: a statewide licensing for gun dealers, banning bump stocks and creating waiting periods for gun purchases. On the bus going down were two young girls whose mother had let them take off from school to go on the trip. They made posters on the bus. When we went in to the offices, Senator Harmon invited the girls to stand with him on the capitol steps. When we were going home, we learned on the bus that all three bills had passed. We celebrated and I thought how wonderful it was for those young girls to have participated that day. I have hope for the young people.
PPF: Do you have any plans for how you might raise the issue of gun violence in the 2020 elections?
Lois: It’s on our radar all the time. At the state level, we have a representative and senator who take leadership to prevent gun violence. We go to support their work on this. This gets very heated in the campaigns when the Illinois State Rifle Association shows up.
Lydia: We’ve had one initial conversation in Adult Education about how to raise the issue of gun violence in the election next year.
Lynn Barrier: I became engaged in the Waging Peace group when I saw the amazing things that the kids from Parkland, FL were doing and I felt compelled to join in. I learned about a voter registration t-shirt that March for Our Lives kids were offering at www.marchforourlives.com The t-shirts feature a big QR code shaped like a flag that links anyone’s smart phone to a website to register to vote. All you have to do is wear it! It was a good project for the older high school kids here and lots of adults also ordered the t-shirts. Altogether, we ordered 32 voter registration t-shirts. I like the idea that the shirt works for multiple elections. We did that for the 2018 elections and we can do it for 2020.
PPF: Chicago has started to see a decline in gun violence.
Lois: Yes, Chicago is beginning to see a slight drop in gun violence. But at our fall vigil, we still read 51 names of those killed in September.
PPF: What would you say to congregations who have not yet been working to prevent gun violence?
Sandy: We would say one of the most frequent Christian commandments: Don’t be afraid. God is on your side. You need to move ahead on this issue. We all do.
Sherlynn: Being afraid is an excuse, not a reality. If your church can’t get out of being afraid, do it anyway. Do it scared and bring others with you. Working in a group gives strength and a common cause. You get strength from each other.
Learn more about First United Church of Oak Park at www.firstunitedoakpark.com and in their Case Study in The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s Gun Violence Prevention Congregational Toolkit in the section on Action. For a free download, see www.presbypeacefellowship.org/gun-violence/congregational-toolkit
Photos: Church members at vigils; the Scroll on Maundy Thursday; Singing at vigil; Reading the names of the dead; Palm Sunday Protest Procession; Memorial in worship; Youth participating; the Scroll in worship; the Voter registration t-shirts; Candle Memorial, with candles in plastic cups, labeled with groups of victims. As each group is called out, a person brings that candle forward until they are all together. See groups below.
Children in their classrooms
People in their homes
Children at play
Young people at a movie theater
Young people on a college campus
Young people at a party
Parents at work
Parents caring for family needs
Parents attending their children’s activities
Young people at work
Young people hanging out together
Family members gathered on a front porch
Men and women at Bible studies
People in military recruitment centers and bases
People at shopping malls
Victims of domestic abuse
Victims of accidental shootings
Victims of gang violence
Children shot by other children
Adults working to bring about change
Community leaders standing up to forces of evil
People of color killed by police over-reaction
Daughters, sisters, wives and mothers killed by gun violence
Sons, brothers, husbands and fathers killed by gun violence
People killed at concerts
People at coffee shops
Elijah Sims, Michael Reese and other people with dreams
People worshipping at church
People killed while protecting others
Victims of drive-by shootings
Teachers at school
Victims of mass shootings
Victims of home invasions
Police officers providing security
Victims of carjackings
Over 28,000 people injured by guns in Chicago in 2017