Several months after I was ordained and began serving as vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in a troubled St. Louis neighborhood, my late wife Mary and I were watching the 10 o’clock news. It was the usual update on local politics, consumer scams, the weather and Cardinals baseball. However, the telecast led with the account of the shooting of a 13-year-old girl not far from our house. She died at the scene, apparently the unintended victim of a drive-by shooting. I didn’t know her but eventually learned that her grandmother was a regular client at our parish food pantry. Out of respect, it seemed to me that I should attend the wake and funeral. There must have been more than 750 people at the funeral home. And, police officers were strategically positioned to protect the family and limit the possibility of a retaliatory shooting. When I returned home, Mary asked what it was like. I sighed and simply said, “If it’s Tuesday, we’re burying our kids.” My sense of the community who had gathered earlier that day was that they were resigned to the inevitability of the violent deaths of their children. If it was Monday, they’d be doing the wash. If it was Friday, they’d be shopping for groceries. But if it was Tuesday, they’d be at some funeral home, some church, burying someone’s child.
Although Ascension is not located in the “free fire zone” that characterizes so many distressed urban neighborhoods, it is on the periphery and clearly transitioning. And while gun violence and the care of both victims and perpetrators was not a daily staple of ministry among this community, it increasingly loomed large and deeply shaped my priesthood. Murders – relatively unknown in the neighborhood a decade ago – now were occurring several times a year. Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, not far from our parish, and several of our youth were his classmates. Kids talked nonchalantly about violence, shrugging as they wondered, “Why shouldn’t I carry a gun? I’m not gonna live to 23. What difference does it make if I die at 21?” And, then, the eldest son of a beloved family in our congregation was killed outside his home in a hail of gunfire.
At the same time, the City of St. Louis was gaining a reputation as the murder capital of the nation. People were afraid and angry. Law enforcement was frustrated. And, numerous community organizations were attempting to understand the contours of the problem and explore strategies to address it. In conversations with The Right Reverend George Wayne Smith, the Bishop of Missouri, we agreed that faith communities had an important role to play and that our diocese could be a significant catalyst in bringing groups together, facilitating a community consensus on potential interventions and providing resources to support them. In 2015, I was appointed to his staff and charged with leading diocesan efforts to reduce gun violence and coordinate our work with others in the region. I also was extremely fortunate to be invited by The Reverend Mike Angell, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in University City, to join the pastoral staff of this progressive congregation with a deeply embedded history of engagement in social justice issues. Our work could not have been sustained without their unwavering support, and I am profoundly grateful.
In the 5 years since these efforts began, significant progress has been made. With the diocese’s financial support, a nationally prominent consulting group was retained to assist the region in developing a structure for coordinating the violence prevention efforts of multiple public and private organizations. Based on their recommendations, the St. Louis Violence Prevention Commission was chartered by St. Louis City and County in 2017 and charged with developing actionable plans, facilitating community input and engagement and monitoring and reporting the results of specific initiatives. Through the Episcopal Presbyterian Health Trust, the diocese also funded a partnership with Washington University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry for the development of educational modules to train mental health professionals, clergy and interested lay people in the care of victims of various forms of violence. Four years ago, another partnership was formed with a local organization, Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, to fund the purchase of state-of-the-art gun locks and their free distribution throughout the community. Finally, I was honored to receive a 2018 Fellowship in Residence from the University of the South’s School of Theology to conduct research in preparation for writing this curriculum.
No work, however modest, could be accomplished without the encouragement, support and talent of colleagues and friends. I am especially grateful for those who so freely offered their perspectives in the video and audio recordings which accompany this curriculum: The Very Reverend Kathie Adams- Shephard; The Venerable Reverend Rebecca Barger; Billy Collins, Ph.D.; Shug Goodlow; The Reverend Dan Handschy, Ph.D.; The Reverend Kristin Leslie, Ph.D.; and The Right Reverend George Wayne Smith. Scott Ferguson lent his considerable artistic talents in staging the videotaping, as did The Reverend Anne Kelsey in providing the exquisite photographs which accompany each chapter. Barry Hong, Ph.D., Dana Downs, MSW and Poli Rijos, MSW provided invaluable editorial feedback . The Right Reverend J. Neil Alexander, Th.D., D.D. and The Reverend Julia Gatta, Ph.D. encouraged my research and welcomed me into the Sewanee community. And, Karen Meredith first saw the potential for making this curriculum broadly available to people of faith regardless of their religious tradition. I cannot thank them enough, nor can I let them assume any responsibility for the shortcomings of this work. Those are mine alone.
Sadly, violence presents itself in many different ways. Consequently, I plan to update and add to this work in the years ahead. In the meantime, my hopeful prayer is that these materials stimulate reflection, thoughtful conversation and, most importantly, action within your own community of faith.
May the God of peace make you an instrument of love and reconciliation in a world so deeply pained by violence.
The Reverend Marc D. Smith, Ph.D.
Bishop's Deputy for Gun Violence Prevention,
The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri
Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, University City, Missouri
THE REV. ANNE KELSEY
My initial response to the request to take photos for this project was to say, “Who are you kidding? I’m a nature photographer!” Then I figured Marc is such a nice guy, how can I say “No?” The challenge was not only technical but conceptual: how could I create images that would do any kind of justice to the depth of pain that each module address? So many images are clichéd and trite, a mistake I hope to have avoided. The bell tower and cross in this first photo sit atop the chapel at the Monastery of Christ in the Dessert in Abiqui, New Mexico. The dessert is harsh, but it is also a place of self-discovery and encounter with God, which is perhaps why both john the Baptist and Jesus went into such a bleak landscape at the beginning of their ministries. The dessert is vast, but there is no room for anything except honesty.