Bishop Mariann preached this homily for the Bishops Against Gun Violence Service of Lament, Hope and Resolve.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“Cyhneil Smith was determined to make it.”
That’s the leading sentence of Cyhneil’s obituary. She was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds in her car on October 16th.
The obituary goes on:
She was a young, petite woman with a feisty attitude and an ever-present smile who had overcome much in her short life. Her first child was stillborn. Her sister was fatally shot two years ago. Still, she pushed forward, had a son, and graduated from a vocational school, aiming to be a hotel concierge. The school’s founder said, “We felt like we could save her from the madness out here,” speaking of the hardships in parts of the District of Columbia. Cyhneil would sometimes bring her one-year old son with her to school when she couldn’t find a babysitter and would sit quietly in the corner studying, feeding him snacks. “It’s not even my future,” she would say as to why she was there. “It’s his future.”
She was 23 years old.
Within a few days of Cyhneil’s death, six other people were shot and killed in Washington, DC: Eugene Miller, age 41; Marcus Nelson, age 59; Simmeon Williams, age 39; Darnell Mack; age 25; Noelle Wilson, age 31.
Noelle’s family issued a public statement: “We have suffered a tremendous loss and are truly heartbroken. Noelle was a daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece, aunt, and friend to many who will undoubtedly miss her every single day.”
Reading obituaries of those lost to gun violence, you feel the grief rise like a wave off the page or screen, When anniversaries of gun deaths come around, you feel the grief rise again, as powerfully as before.
On an anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando four years ago, in which 49 people died and 53 were wounded, the wife of Deonka Drayton said this:
“Every night our son, when we’re going to bed, we walk up the stairs, he’ll turn to her picture and say, ‘Night, night, mommy.’ I don’t know how to get him to understand that she’s never coming back, and I miss her so much. That feeling is constant. Like, I need her to call me. I need to see her. I will always love her. . . There will never be an end.”
Today, October 27th, is the anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. A heavily armed gunman spewing hateful words towards Jews and the immigrants they advocated for shot and killed 11 worshippers, aged 54 to 97 as they gathered on a Saturday morning.
For years, Tree of Life member Arlene Wolk was part of a core group that gathered each morning at the synagogue for prayers followed by breakfast. Several of that group were among those killed. Two years later, Ms. Wolk still carries that grief. “Those people were my family.” She lives just a few blocks from the synagogue. She wasn’t there that morning, but soon enough heard the helicopters overhead. “At first, I went every day to the site,” she said. “Then I avoided it, because I couldn’t be near it. And now sometimes I walk up there. I just look at it and I remember the people. And some days I can’t go.”
Lastly, in my inbox this week was this email, written by the still heartbroken parents of Tom Marmet:
October 25th marks two years since Tom was murdered while driving home from his job as a social worker. The past twenty-four months have been a trauma-induced roller coaster, filled with profound sadness and challenging times.
For those of you gathered among us who bring your personal loss because of a gun into this community of prayer, know that your loved ones are the reason the rest of us are here, too. We want to remember them. We see your grief and stand with you. And we pledge this day, once again, to work for that day when, at last, we will speak of this season of gun violence in the past tense.
We gather in lament because we need to acknowledge our grief before God and one another. And we gather to drink from the wells of blessing in order to sustain our hope. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “For they will be comforted. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for one day you will be filled. Blessed are you.” Jesus’ blessing isn’t a bandage to hide a gaping wound. It is grace that gives hope for a better day and resolve to transform hope into reality.
I am persuaded that one day we’ll look back on this season of reckless gun policy and gun violence in all its forms the way we look back now on the era of lynching. One day we will shake our heads as we remember the time when some thought the current level of death wrought by guns was the unfortunate but necessary price for the right to own a gun, that there was nothing to be done to hold gun manufacturers accountable for the weapons they produce; no way to stop police shootings, and we’ll say, “How on earth did we allow it to go on for so long?”
Someday nearly everyone in our society will consider astonishingly low levels of gun violence, levels unimaginable to us now, as the norm. And some who are now the most resistant to changes in gun laws and policies, will talk on that day as if the new normal had been their idea all along. But it won’t be because of them that the laws and norms of this country will change. It will be because of you–you who have borne the greatest burden of grief, you who feel called to bend this particular arc toward justice.
On behalf of all those who will live because of your efforts, thank you. Surely God thanks you.
Tom Marmet’s parents write this:
While we are broken, we have made it this far, and had our spirits lifted, because of the love and support from each of you. Together, we hope to continue on the journey of healing for ourselves and for our community. We aim to be stronger and as full of life as Tom was through all his days. We will work to find hope and to build a world free from the gun violence that takes far too many lives, and robbed us of our beloved Tom.
This is a non-partisan prayer service, but I would be disingenuous if I didn’t acknowledge how one-sided the opposition to gun violence prevention has become in our country. We cannot spare the Republican Party the long-term consequences of being on the wrong side of this and other moral issues of our time. Even a firm conservative majority on the Supreme Court cannot spare them the judgment of history.
The resolve we need to bring about the day we long for will surely carry us far beyond next week’s election. But you don’t need me to tell you how high the stakes are in this election for gun violence measures, at every level of government.
We have reason to be hopeful. Remember that two years ago, a concerted effort to elect officials committed to common-sense gun legislation transformed places like the Virginia state legislature. That effort helped to elect gun sensible leaders to the US House of Representatives. The changes in laws on state and local levels as a result are significant. There is a national effort to do the same in other state legislatures, and in the US Senate and yes, in the Oval Office.
We have reason to be hopeful. And so we vote, not for ourselves alone, but for Cyhneil’s little boy, and for those who deserve a violent-free future. For we are blessed with grief, blessed with a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and blessed with the resolve to work for peace.
There’s a peace march song from the 1980s that Holly Near wrote at the height of the Central American wars. I loved it then, and these days I can’t get it out of my head, so let me close with the refrain, slightly modified for this occasion:
We will have peace (an end to gun violence)
We will because we must
We must because we cherish life
And believe it or not, as daring as it may seem
It is not an empty dream
It is not an empty dream to live in a world free of gun violence. It is a God-given dream, embedded in our hearts, seared by grief, fueled by hope, filling us with resolve to live and work and vote and organize until that dream is a reality–if not for Cyhneil and Tom and Carmen and Meaghan and Marcus and Deonka and Breonna and Ahmaud and Walter and all we’ve lost, then for others, for the children who will go on to live long, healthy, wondrous lives, because we dared to dream, to show up, to vote and to work to bring an end to gun violence.
May it be so.