Last Tuesday morning, 26 cyclists rode into the Cathedral grounds near the end of a ride that began days earlier in Newtown, Connecticut. We provisioned them with water, granola bars, and prayers and they set off for their final destination, Capitol Hill. There with the Connecticut delegation, they staged a press conference urging Congress to pass universal background check legislation and other modest gun violence prevention measures. “We have watched as Congress has done nothing while 44 school shootings have taken place since Dec. 14, 2012,” Team 26 organizer Monte Frank said. “Sandy Hook’s message will not be forgotten.”
One of cyclists, Mark Barden, lost his son at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “Daniel was a constant light of energy and love. He was murdered in his first grade classroom,” he said with quiet dignity. “As we rode through towns and cities, it was encouraging that a growing number of people no longer accept these deaths. They realize that the patriot’s way is to protect neighborhoods, communities and children from gun violence.”
Joining the Newtown cyclists was Virginia Tech graduate Omar Samaha. “My sister Reema was killed at Virginia Tech in her freshman year.” Samaha said. “She was a beautiful dancer, with dreams for the future. After Sandy Hook, my heart broke again. It brought everything back and confirmed my belief that there is something we can and must do.”
First meeting the cyclists, you would never know the level of grief they carried on their shoulders. Yet each had a story of profound loss and sober determination to honor loved ones, friends and neighbors whose violent deaths could have been prevented.
On Thursday afternoon, we gathered at the Cathedral again where 103 tee shirts hung on crosses on the front lawn, each bearing the name of a DC resident killed by gun violence last year. Family members of those who died were there, although you couldn’t have picked them out of the crowd. We honored those they lost, and we offered words of blessing for First Responders—those police officers and paramedics who must routinely cope with the devastating effects of gun violence. As a rabbi placed her hand on a police officer’s shoulder and prayed for God’s mercy and protection, tears welled in his eyes. Thank you, he said quietly, surrounded by his colleagues in uniform. You have to look closely to see the burden these public servants carry on our behalf, the images of senseless violence with them always.
Later, at a forum with both national and local leaders, I had the privilege of sitting alongside the Rev. Donald Isaac, Executive Director of the East of the River Clergy, Police, & Community Partnership, an organization committed to reducing violence in DC neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Pastor Isaac told us that clergy east of the river have committed to visiting the families of those killed. “We underestimate the trauma of gun deaths,” he said, “and the urge traumatized family members have to strike back. We’re there to break the cycle of vengeance.” There was a quiet urgency in his voice as he appealed for us to care about those the rest of the city would rather forget.
In his remarks at the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath, Dean Gary Hall acknowledged that this is a wilderness time in the struggle to secure federal gun control legislation that most Americans support. “Yet we will not lose our resolve or our hope,” he said. “We are prepared to stay the course as long as it takes.”
As long as it takes, I said to myself more than once last week. All around us, people are carrying the devastating grief and trauma of gun violence. And it needn’t be so.
Whatever it takes, as long as it takes, this scourge must and will end. Our children’s children will look back and marvel at how long the struggle took. Some will live whose lives would otherwise be lost because of our commitment now.