Jesus said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”
In church this Sunday, we’ll hear the story of two of Jesus’ disciples who in their grief at Jesus’ death, felt compelled to take a long walk.
Sometimes grief propels us to walk, too.
On April 17, I joined a procession of mourners walking the streets of Nashville, Tennessee. We were led by a student carrying a child’s coffin, with pallbearers carrying other coffins behind her, each representing one of the children and adults killed at Covenant Christian School. Slowly we made our way from a downtown church to the State Capitol Building. Some in the crowd carried placards that read, “Protect Our Children.”
Bishop William J. Barber II, leader of Repairers of the Breach invoked the memory of Mamie Till-Mobley, who insisted that the world see her teenage son’s mutilated body after he had been tortured and lynched in Mississippi. “We need our elected leaders to see what their willful inaction has wrought,” Barber said, as the coffins were placed on the capitol steps.
We were clergy, students, teachers, and survivors gathered to express our grief at the unchecked death toll by gun violence and renounce the lie that nothing can be done to prevent the daily carnage.
We didn’t talk as we walked. Many were holding back tears. We sang spirituals of quiet determination:
I don’t feel no ways tired,
I’ve come too far from where I started from.
Nobody told me that the road would be easy,
I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.
At the capitol steps we listened to those whose lives had been forever changed by gun violence.
One mother of a student at Covenant School described the terror of March 27th, the agony of waiting in the family reunification center, and the cries of a mother when she learned that her child was among the dead. “The trauma will never leave us,” she wept. “Third graders saw their classmates’ bodies torn apart.”
Another man spoke of his brother, killed by a gun while driving in his car by another driver as he passed by. It is legal to drive in Tennessee with a loaded gun, even without a state-issued permit to own or carry it. “If lenient gun laws protected people, we would be among the safest states to live in,” he said. “But we have one of the highest rates of gun deaths.” He’s right. Tennessee ranks 11th in the nation.1
A mother described the active shooter drills in her children’s school. “They are told to crouch in the darkness and be as still as a mouse. The restless ones are given lollipops to keep them quiet. We are asking them to rehearse their deaths.”
The three Episcopal bishops in Tennessee, in their written statement, urge both prayer and action in response to the gun deaths in their state:
We pray that our state legislators will act now to find and walk a path together, enacting legislation which embraces common sense gun regulations. We ask that our legislators give our communities the tools necessary now to ensure that the children of Tennessee will be able to play safely in our streets, and grow up to be elders, without a daily fear that acts of gun violence are impossible to stop.2
Sometimes it feels as if gun violence is impossible to stop. On Monday I walked with others whose hearts are broken, yet who refuse to give up hope. Together we remembered how Jesus walks with us in grief and empowers us to act in ways that bring life and healing into our world.
One day future generations will look back on this period in our nation the way we look back on the horrific era of public lynchings, when crowds would gather to cheer as men, women, and children were brutally killed, and elected leaders insisted that nothing could be done. One day others will look back on this era the way we look back in shame at the laws that perpetuated Jim Crow. Many people in that era believed the lie that racial segregation not only shouldn’t change, but that it was, in fact, ordained by God.
It was a lie then, and it is a lie now, that nothing can be done to stop us from changing what must be changed. The journey is long and the grief is real. Sometimes grief propels us to walk, and we draw strength from each other. Jesus meets on the road and helps us to keep walking away from death toward life.
The change will come. How many children must die before it does is up to us.
Bishop Mariann is part of the national network, Bishops United Against Gun Violence. Their annual meeting will be at St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill on May 17-18. If you would like to attend the sessions that will address neighborhood violence here in our cities and communities, please contact her.
1“Tennessee is Among the Worst States for Gun Violence,” Linda Sullivan, guest column in The Tennessean
2Tennessee’s Three Bishops Issue Moral Monday Statement, The Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee website