Episcopal Urban Caucus
March 3, 2016
Sharing our stories,
Inspiring hope for a culture of despair.
What a great theme for the 2016 Episcopal Urban Caucus Assembly. I’m confident I can share my story with you. I am happy to offer suggestions of things that I am doing in my own life and maybe between those two topics, I might even inspire a little hope for all of us.
My story is this — I am Allison Sandlin Liles, a native Alabamian presently living in the blue ridge mountains of Virginia. I discerned my call to the priesthood when I was 21 years old, before I could even articulate what that even meant. What I knew is that Christ called me to love everyone and treat them all with the same fairness and respect. I knew that there was a huge disconnect between the faith most Christians in Alabama professed and the lives they actually lived. I knew that I yearned to be a more authentic disciple of Jesus, but wasn’t really sure how to put that into words. My sponsoring rector and bishop assured me that’s what seminary was for – a place where I could gain language to help articulate my own theology and my call. It didn’t take long.
The first month of my first semester at Virginia Seminary a new friend invited me to the VTS Episcopal Peace Fellowship chapter meeting at professor Barney Hawkins’ house. At the meeting we took turns sharing our particular peace projects, our interests, our favorite words from scripture and then we renewed our baptismal covenants. I’d reaffirmed these vows countless times before, but they caught ahold of me that night in a new way.
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people,
And respect the dignity of every human being?”
All the words I needed to define my faith were right in front of me all along. In Alabama people called me things like idealist, radical and fanatic. Standing in Barney Hawkins’ living room a wave of understanding came over me. I wasn’t an idealist or a radical or a fanatic. I was a Christian living into her baptismal promises. I was following Christ’s call to peacemaking. This is what we are all called to do. Over the next three years the more I studied scripture the more empowered I became to follow Jesus into a life of waging peace in seminary. I found deep roots for my personal beliefs.
At the heart of the gospel lies a message of peace and justice. Wherever I look, Jesus is either preaching about justice and peace or living out words of justice and peace through his actions. Time and time again he calls us to do likewise. Peace is the foundation of Jesus’ ministry on earth and peace is what Jesus leaves with his followers upon his ascent into heaven.
Jesus tells his followers in Luke 10:27 that one “must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbors as yourself.” Love God with your whole being and Love Each Other. It’s a simple yet hard truth Jesus asks of us that requires constant vigilance, resolution and above all practice. We must speak love and live love every moment of the day – that is what Jesus calls us towards. Loving God and Loving Each Other means living in peace, with peace and waging peace.
I imagined this would affect my priesthood and it absolutely does. During my years working as a parish priest I kept Jesus’ commandment to Love God and Love Each Other near me always – in the pulpit, in hospital rooms, in committee meetings, in daunting pastoral situations. Sometimes it was easy to remember, other times I had to be intentional about recalling Jesus’ words and putting them into practice. Now working for Episcopal Peace Fellowship the call to love other people is put to the test daily. Every time I read about an unjustified action of police brutality, a drone bombing innocent civilians, another human rights attack against Palestinians, another child shot unintentionally because of access to unlocked firearms, every time I read these accounts I feel anger, sorrow and shame. Love and compassion for the perpetrator is never the emotion I feel first. However, it does come. Eventually.
What I did not expect was how much Jesus’ commands to Love God and Love Others was going to impact me as a parent. I was not prepared for how often I would be called to live into my baptismal vows while raising children. I am the mother of a first grade boy and a pre-k girl and I find opportunities to wage peace and teach compassion every single day. Though it’s not how we envisioned it, seven years into parenting my husband and I now realize that we approach parenthood with the goal of raising competent, compassionate adults who we will soon send out into the world. We feel the weight of raising adults and take it seriously. We understand the interpersonal skills we teach them and model for them could leave a lifelong imprint.
Every week I read at least one heartbreaking story about a child, teenager or adult who does not appropriately address conflict and disappointment. They are unable or unwilling to talk through disagreements and instead use guns to do the talking for them. They are unable to see Christ in one another.
In Shreveport, LA last month after 43 year old Charles Ray Acklen bought a lottery ticket, his father questioned why he chose the numbers he did. Instead of offering a quick explanation, Charles Ray pulled a gun out and threatened to shoot his own dad. So, the dad grabbed his own handgun & fatally shot his son multiple times in the upper body. 
Five days later a couple in a Chicago suburb argued over a coffee pot that was left on too long. The husband walked out of the kitchen to his home office and shut the door. When his wife entered the office, he was sitting at his desk and fired his handgun at her four times. Three of those shots hit Karen Lotz including one fatal shot to the head.
Six days later a father and son got into an argument with an employee at a Mississippi gun store over a $25 charge to repair their firearm. The store-owner and his son came to settle the disagreement, but no words were exchanged. Instead both father and son pairs drew their weapons and began firing at one another. Jason A. McLemore, 44, the owner of McLemore Gun Shop, and his son, Jacob Edward McLemore, 17 were both killed, while Audy McCool, 52, and his son Michael McCool, 29, sustained life-threatening injuries.
Two days later a Newark man was shot because he borrowed a woman’s shovel that was laying on the ground so he could clear an elderly neighbor’s sidewalk. When the shovel’s owner began yelling at him, he returned it to her yard and walked back to his home. Unfortunately, during that walk home he was accosted and shot in his backside.
What does this say about the children we are raising and sending out into the world? What does it say about our culture that so many children and adult alike prefer ending a conversation with a weapon rather than talking through it with their words? As a parent one of the phrases I find myself saying most often is “use your words.” In our house we do not tolerate retaliation, pouting or tantrum throwing. Even as toddlers these behaviors were not acknowledged. As soon as one of our children began stomping or throwing themselves to the ground in a fit of fury, they were sent to their rooms where they could cry and mope all they wanted. Now at ages 7 & 4 we expect them to be in control of their behavior. We encourage them to feel the range of emotions, but to maintain control over their actions. We facilitate conversations between siblings when they are angry, we parent often using natural consequences and I teach them as many forms of nonviolent resistance as possible.
And I say teach them because nonviolent resistance is not natural to American children, at least that’s what I’ve observed in my life. Toddlers hit when their toys are taken away. Preschoolers hit, cry or run away from conflict. Fight or flight seem to be the only options as children grow into their teen years. So from the onset of our children’s lives we have tried our hardest to present a third way, an alternative to fight or flight such as using their fantastic senses of humor, their ability to feel compassion and seeing Christ in the other person.
Of course this wasn’t easy at first. When they were younger, we as parents made a lot of decisions on their behalf. As their parents we functioned a bit like dictators issuing decrees because we were in control of nearly aspect of their lives. One of the ways we exercised this control was to be a weapon free house. Guns are not allowed; the adults do not own real guns and the children are not allowed their toy counterparts. Any people who visit us are asked to leave their guns at home. And before we visit other people’s homes I first ask about unlocked guns and remind my own children they are not to touch any toys guns they might find. Similarly swords, knives, slingshots and all other instruments of violence are forbidden because they inevitably will be used to inflict pain.
Veteran parents told me keeping toy guns out of the house wouldn’t matter because little boys turn everything into weapons. Think about it, they said, men for generations and generations and generations served as the hunter, as the gatherer who needed to kill for food and protect their family. Boys are hardwired for this, they said! And they were right, that is exactly what happened. Sticks, golf clubs, toast, bananas were all used as guns. My son’s 3 year old preschool teacher pulled me aside one day to tell me he was cutting guns out of paper to shoot his classmates. That time and every time we address it head on: as Christians we are not people who hurt other people, we help them. So please, put away your weapon.
Now that they are getting older the dictator model is shifting into more of a dialogue. One of our first in depth conversations happened after my son turned five years old and asked how he could protect me if a bad guy broke into our home. “If we don’t have a gun, how will we stay safe?” Again we talked about compassion and nonviolent resistance. If someone breaks into our home, the adults will talk to him like the child of God that he or she is. We will offer food and clothing, we will offer prayer.
Children growing up today have guns on their minds constantly. How can they not with the number of shootings happening every day. With the lockdown drills that are practiced in their classrooms multiple times a year. They are growing up with the fact that most children by the time they are teenagers personally know someone who has been killed by a gun. And the fact that 1 in 3 American families has a gun in their home and the majority of those guns are not safely locked away. The fact that teen suicide rates are skyrocketing because of easy access to guns and the fact that there aren’t a lot of “unsuccessful” suicide attempts involving firearms.
It is absolutely unfair that our children must live with this reality. It is absolutely unfair that at 5 years old my son asked me the week before he started kindergarten, “What if a bad guy comes into my school? What will I do?” I talked to him about lockdown drills that his school would practice, but then after his first drill the he asked me again, “Mommy, what do I do if a bad guy comes into my school? There are no doors or walls in my classroom, so we just stood by our cubbies and were quiet.”
Thinking of my precious child exposed and terrified, I arranged a meeting with two local police officers to talk about these lockdown drills and a few other things on my mind. The Community Safety Officer began by telling me that the motto they offer at community active shooter trainings is Run-Hide-Fight in that order. People tend to freeze and panic he said, so hiding under a desk in an office with only one exit is a terrible idea – instead he tells folks to get out while they can. As he was giving this advice, all I thought about was my child standing by a cubby in an open concept kindergarten room with no doors at all. I turned to the other officer who works with the schools in our county and asked how running then hiding works with lockdown drills. He looked at me sympathetically and said, “Obviously, ma’am, what would be best is if the students and teachers exited the nearest exterior door and fled to the wooded areas that surround most of our schools. But we can’t suggest that, so they find a place to gather in their classrooms.”
This is the reality our children live with every day. They attend school with this unspoken wave of fear and paranoia engulfing their education. I have hope that by the time this generation of children reaches adulthood, things will change. They will no longer tolerate being bullied by fear-mongering politicians and lobbyists. I’m certainly seeing that with my children. When I voted in the primaries on Super Tuesday I talked through the candidates with my son. He knows certain things on his own, from listening to Morning Edition on the way to school. “Trump is nuts” is a phrase he’s repeated often of the past few weeks. When we talked about our party’s candidates, the first thing he asked was if they would keep guns away from dangerous people. He’s already a single-issue voter and he’s only 7 years old! But until this generation of children is 18 and able to vote for themselves, we will need to act on their behalf. We must continue applying pressure to the institutions in our lives so that the safety of our children and grandchildren is the priority. We must make decisions about where we shop, play, worship, work and where our children attend college based on their gun policies.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of solutions or suggestions, but this is what is working for me in my cultural context. First, all guns should be locked away securely, with ammunition stored separately. Storing guns unloaded, locked, and apart from ammunition is a simple, commonsense measure to ensure guns do not end up in the hands of children. The Justice Department provides gunlocks for police departments to distribute free of charge. I have a few at home that I give away every time I learn of someone who doesn’t lock their firearm.
Twice a week children are killed unintentionally because of easy access to loaded guns. And note that I say unintentionally, not accidentally. Every gun that a child touches first passes through the hands of an adult. It’s not an accident that they leave the gun where a child can reach it. It’s not an accident that they leave it loaded and unlocked. It’s not an accident; it’s criminal negligence. And the parents should be held liable.
Do you know if your state has a Child Access Prevention Laws that allow law enforcement to charge adult gun owners with a crime if a child accesses a negligently stored gun and death or serious injury results? These laws reduce the number of children killed or injured in unintentional shootings, and also substantially reduced child gun suicides. And yet, the NRA repeatedly opposes such laws, saying the laws infringe on gun owners’ rights to effectively protect their homes.
The vast majority of shootings by children — more than two-thirds — could have been avoided if gun owners stored their firearms responsibly and prevented children from accessing them. Parents can no longer dismiss these incidents with statements like, “I didn’t know,” “My child would know better,” or “It was a tragic accident.” There is no such thing as an accidental shooting when it involves a child pulling the trigger.
Telling a child not to touch a gun if they find one is not enough. I do not want my children to be responsible to make the right decision in a life or death situation. I know how often they touch things they are told not to touch. So, we need to be informed of guns in any homes that our children visit and I invite you to join the ASK campaign by pledging to always, always ask about guns in the home before children visit a house for a play date. We already ask about allergies, swimming pools and pets – so asking about guns isn’t out of left field. But asking before play dates and birthday parties isn’t the end. I also ask before we take them to church dinners in parishioners’ homes and before we visit family for the holidays. This conversation was little awkward at first, but I knew it was important so I asked it. Now I don’t even think about because it’s instinctual. I also volunteer information that we are a gun-free home before we hosting visitors, including babysitters. More than two million American children live in homes with unsecured guns, asking about guns in the home could mean the difference between life and death.
We must lobby our legislators too vote for sensible gun laws. After meeting directly with your representative in person, making a phone call is the single most effective thing that you can do. You can also tweet them or send them Facebook messages. Let them know that you are a constituent, that you vote for candidates that make gun reform a priority and that you expect to see them take strong action on common sense gun laws. And if they won’t vote for change, then you be the change and vote them out of office.
We can also find out what local businesses, organizations and spaces have policies about open and concealed carry. It is important for your local community organizations to have gun policies – places to ask are privately owned business, houses of worship, schools, libraries, gyms, malls, and public spaces. Some national chains have policies, but then the franchises defer to local laws. We recently had incredible success at our local Whole Foods when a friend noticed people openly carrying when she shopped. She walked out of the store then called the manager, who told her they do not have a policy. She knew that Whole Foods was a gun free zone, which is why she shopped there. So she called the national office and then contacted a journalist. Three simple phone calls created national pressure and now there is a sign posted prohibiting guns in the Charlottesville, Virginia Whole Foods.
When I was shopping for Christmas gifts I noticed a locally owned toy store had a sign in the window prohibiting food, drinks, cleats and pets – but nowhere did they mention weapons. I talked with the owner who said she had never even thought about it, but of course they should be a weapon free business! So up a sign went the next week.
Another thing the members of my local gun violence prevention coalition have done well is taking turns writing letters to the editor of our daily newspaper. We’ve found that using a few carefully placed letters, we can generate plenty of community discussion. We’ve kept the issues of sensible gun laws, gun free zones and the ASK campaign going through these letters. We refuse to allow thee topics to disappear from the public eye. You can stimulate the interest of the news media and create more coverage for the matters you’re working on. I’m up next and will be writing a response to a recent article lifting up the despicable deal our governor made with the NRA lobby.
One thing Episcopalians can do well and easily is host a public vigil for gun violence victims at your church. Heartfelt and public displays of grief for the victims, the perpetrators and their families are important. When the next horrific gun murder occurs in your community, volunteer to organize or be part of a public vigil. You can also join the annual Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend that happens the second weekend of December each year. Episcopal Peace Fellowship has all the resources you could possibly need to craft a liturgy. We want to help you.
And speaking of your church – ask your rector how you can raise awareness of all of these issues. Passing out flyers for the ASK campaign, offering an adult education class using EPF’s gun violence prevention curriculum, creating a weekly prayer group that prays for all Americans by name who were killed by gun violence that week.
We know that all of these actions work. We know that all of these actions help bend the arc of moral universe toward justice and peace. Gun violence is something that affects every single one of us. And as Christians, I think every one of us needs to be working for a cultural change in this country. All Christians are called to be peacemakers. Jesus doesn’t politely request that we take on it on as a part-time duty of discipleship. His commands to love God and love each other need to be with us at all times — It’s a requirement for our faith that demands total investment and dedication to unconditional, unlimited and uncompromising love. Henry Nouwen claims that taking on a life of active love and peacemaking is a “holy obligation for all people whatever their professional or family situation.”
Loving our neighbors as ourselves isn’t a suggested option for Christians; we take a vow to live out this command. Loving our neighbors as ourselves does not mean keeping a loaded weapon in our nightstand so we can shoot them if they borrow our snow shovel. Loving our neighbor does not mean allowing our children to play at their houses without asking about safe gun storage. Loving our neighbor does not mean carrying a gun with us everywhere we go, just in case we need it for protection. When a gun is on our hip or in our purse, all of our neighbors become targets. Loving our neighbor means lobbying for bans on all military style assault weapons that serve no other purpose than glorifying violence and robbing the life of another child of God. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means valuing their lives more than valuing a piece of metal. Loving God means valuing God more than our possessions and our constitutional rights. Our God is a God of peace, love and justice. Our God is not a God who condones violence and destruction.