by the Rite 13 Class, featuring interviews by Matthew Lopilato and Gabriel Mallory
Note: This Spring, St. John’s grade 6/7 and 8/9 classes joined forces for a special “Write 13” project. Students explored the connection between faith and works, and considering how our faith can inspire action for justice. Youth identified social issues that fire them up: gun violence, disaster response, food insecurity, LGBTQIA+ rights, and environmental action. Then they interviewed leaders of corresponding St. John’s ministries and wrote articles, of which this is the first to be published.
“There was a shooting in Fort Reno park. Jackson-Reed and my school went into lockdown,” recalled Cara Braden, a St. John’s parishioner and sixth grader at Deal Middle School in Washington D.C.. “They didn’t give the teachers a ton of information. And, I was in Chinese class, and English isn’t my teacher’s first language. The whole thing was really confusing and scary.”
Sadly, Cara’s experience is far from uncommon for American children. When an impromptu discussion of school lockdowns broke out in a recent Rite 13 Sunday School class, six of the seven middle school students in attendance had gun-related, school-lockdown stories to share. The seventh was not sure if his lockdown experience counted because it had been prompted by a bomb scare.
“We had to stay in lockdown until 5pm,” continued Cara. “When my mom was finally able to pick my sister and me up, I remember her saying to me, ‘I’m so sorry this happened on your birthday.’”
Some people might question whether a Sunday School class is an appropriate setting for a talk on gun violence. But, two points are worth considering. First, the lockdown conversation happened spontaneously as if lockdown stories are the new war stories: memories that bubble to the surface whether we want them to or not. Second, as one student noted, school shooters come with triggers not “trigger warnings.”
Similarly, some people might question whether a church should get involved in an issue as politically charged as gun violence. But sit down with Margaret Hilton, one of the tireless conveners for St. John’s Gun Violence Prevention (GVP) Ministry, and you will hear many convincing arguments why an institution with such a strong focus on peace and justice has no choice but to take a leadership role in the struggle against gun violence in America.
GVP Ministry at Five: real accomplishments but so much more to do
Many Americans have never known a time when gun violence was not front and center in the news. Yet, 2017-2018 was both a particularly painful and promising time in America’s gun violence crisis.
- In October 2017 in Las Vegas, America witnessed the deadliest-ever mass shooting by an individual. A shooter fired more than 1,000 bullets, killing 60 and wounding at least 413 people attending the Harvest Music Festival.
- In February 2018 in Parkland, Florida, America witnessed yet another senseless, horrific mass shooting of students at school. A shooter killed 17 and wounded 17 at Stoneman Douglas High School.
- In March 2018, between one and two million people took to the streets of Washington, DC, and cities across the country to demand federal, state and local gun-safety legislation.
- In June 2018, gun violence hit tragically close to home for St. John’s as a shooter killed five and injured two at the offices of The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.
In Fall 2018, Rector Sari Ateek wrote to the parish, inviting us to consider moving beyond thoughts and prayers. After three listening sessions, Sari wrote a Crossroads article outlining proposed a three-pronged approach for moving forward: a grounding in prayer; education about the gun violence epidemic and ways to combat it; and action to make our world safer.
In January, 2019, Hilton launched the St. John’s Gun Violence Prevention Ministry, inviting parishioners who had attended the listening sessions and Faith in Action Coordinating Committee members to help set up a T-shirt display memorializing DC area victims of gun violence on the tower lawn.
“When you’re talking about gun violence prevention, you have to have hope. There’s always hope,” said Hilton when describing why she wanted to help organize the GVP Ministry,
Over the years, that hope has been challenged. GVPM worked with many organizations and politicians; yet progress, at times, seemed unreachable especially on the national level. For example, there was little national movement and political enthusiasm for banning semi-automatic guns or instituting universal background checks.
“Ghost guns are another big problem, “ Hilton explains. ”Buy a kit online to build your own gun. No background checks, no license, no age checks.”
Underscoring Hilton’s point, the number of shootings involving DIY ghost guns doubled in recent years. Included in the growing list of ghost gun incidents, in 2022, a man used an AR-15 style ghost gun to kill his three daughters during Sunday services at a Sacramento church. Closer to home, a student at Magruder High School was critically shot inside a school bathroom by another student with a ghost gun.
Despite political hurdles and frustrations, the GVP Ministry has been front and center on legislative successes in Maryland. Collaborating with Maryland Moms Demand Action, they won universal background checks for long guns in 2021 (a St. John’s family lost a loved one to a long gun in the Annapolis Capitol Gazette newspaper shooting) and a ban on ghost guns in 2022. The 2022 effort included emails to Governor Hogan asking him to NOT veto the ghost gun ban passed by both houses of the legislature. The Governor did not veto it and it went into effect in June of 2022. This year, the group’s advocacy helped pass bills to strengthen concealed carry laws and require safe firearm storage. This year’s victories were assisted by last fall’s elections, when Democrats favoring common sense gun restrictions won a super-majority in the state legislature, and gun sense champion Wes Moore was elected Governor.
In March 2018, Jaelynn Willey 16 was shot by a classmate in the hallway of Great Mills High School. For the next 4 years, the GVP Ministry joined Jaelynn’s mother, Moms Demand Action, and Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence in persistently asking the Maryland legislature to pass a safe storage law. . Such laws can reduce mass shootings (most school shooters obtain their weapon at home) and suicides among teens by prohibiting a person from storing or leaving a firearm in a location where a minor could gain access.
This year, to advocate for both Jaelynn’s Law and Senate Bill 1, GVPM sent postcards and emails to our state representatives throughout the legislative session (January-April), and 11 GVP Ministry members joined Moms Demand Action Advocacy Day in January. Jaelynn’s Law passed both houses of the MD legislature. It is currently on its way to Governor Moore’s desk for signature.
Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 824
Maryland’s S.B. 1 prohibits a person from knowingly wearing, carrying, or transporting a firearm in several sensitive areas, including “an area for children or vulnerable individuals” or “a government or public infrastructure area.” Despite NRA criticisms that SB 1 is an attempt to further restrict where someone can carry a firearm “by arbitrarily and dramatically expanding the number of places labeled as ‘sensitive places,’” both Maryland houses passed SB1. House Bill 824 also passed both houses. It strengthens background checks for those applying for a concealed carry permit. SB1 and House Bill 824 are also headed to the Governor’s desk for signature.
Hearing New Perspectives
Many Americans have grown numb to news of gun violence. For that and many other reasons it is important to hear from recent arrivals and younger Americans on gun safety. These voices can help us put the scope and impact of gun violence into focus.
“It was shocking for me. I am from Lebanon where I saw guns everyday. We escaped from Lebanon to be safe here,” explains Hala Abouassaly, a St. John’s parishioner who came to America in 2003 with her husband. “In Lebanon, they never shot at a school or mall. I have a friend who drops her child off at school and waits for the door to lock. We were tired of bombs and war and killing, and we come here and we have to face this.”
“During this day and time, you can’t just hope for the best,” said Anthony Abouassaly, Hala’s 12-year old son. “If you don’t do anything, where will we be? I don’t want schools to have to have metal detectors.”
Cara, who shared her lockdown experience at Deal Middle School, has been entering school through metal detector every day since the beginning of sixth grade.
The metal detectors do not unnerve or discourage Cara from wanting to do more.
“The only way you can change something is by believing that it can change,” explains Cara. “You can’t rely on others to make change. If everyone is thinking that nothing can change, then no one’s going to take a stand.”
Hilton and the GVP Ministry are passionate about widening the conversation and finding common ground with people outside our parish. To that end, on May 7th at 12:00, St John’s, with co-sponsor Temple Sinai DC, is hosting “Finding Common Ground with Gun Owners on Gun Safety Policies.”
The goal of the forum is to see if Maryland can lead the nation on “common ground” gun safety policies that are supported by gun owners. The forum will feature Mathew Littman, Executive Director of 97percent, Professor Michael Siegel of Tufts University, and Maryland State Senator Jeff Waldstreicher.
“It is our hope and belief that we as a faith community can play a role in solving this terrible scourge of gun violence by trying to find common ground with responsible gun owners who understand the lethality and understand common sense legislation,” said Rev. Anne Derse, Deacon and Minister of Community Engagement at St. John’s. “If you come to our town hall, you, too, can be part of the process and make a difference.”
The question remains, “Is this a church thing?”
The April 10th Social Justice Ministry Action Alert clearly argues that Episcopal churches cannot sit this fight out: the Episcopal Church strongly supports efforts to address America’s unique and shameful gun violence crisis. It is out of love for the living God and reverence for human life that The Episcopal Church calls upon Congress to act decisively to limit access to deadly firearms and invest in proven efforts to interrupt violence and make our communities safer.
The middle school students in Rite 13 class express their own clear convictions.
“It’s important to not just focus on religion but bring more hope,” explains Cara Braden. “Talk through, see the other point of view, respect each other’s opinions. Church is a good place to have these discussions.”
The church is part of the community,” said Anthony Abouassaly. “Every community wants to be a safe place to live, peacefully, not have to worry every moment about dying.”
Nathanael Kovacs: My teacher’s son’s school was in a lockdown because a student got angry with another student and brought in a gun that he made himself. They didn’t end the lockdown until 7pm that day.
Hugh Furness: A kid brought in blueprints for a gun to make with a 3D printer at school. He never managed to make the gun. But he sent death threats to kids in my carpool.
Matthew Lopilato: On the weekends a Ukrainian school uses my school for language lessons. My school received anonymous bomb threats and some of our teachers got threatening emails. One school day, an electrical transformer exploded a few blocks from our school. Rattled from all the threats, my school went into immediate lockdown. My class was on the other side of the school from the transformer. We barely heard it. But other classes and teachers were very scared.