BIC church members hold vigil on Good Friday protesting gun violence

Vigil attendees hold a banner declaring their reason for assembling.—On Good Friday, more than 50 members of Circle of Hope—a network of BIC congregations in Philadelphia—partnered with the anti-gun violence advocacy group Heeding God's Call to hold a prayer vigil outside The Shooter Shop, a gun retailer in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood.

According to Circle of Hope's website, the vigil was “a powerful way to collectively engage and reflect on Jesus' death and mourn victims of gun violence in our city.”

The vigil brought together members from all three Circle congregations as well as 200–300 people from outside Circle's church community, including neighborhood residents, victims of gun violence and their families, and individuals from other faith-based groups that partner with Heeding God's Call.

The purpose of the vigil, according to event organizers, was to urge The Shooter Shop and other gun retailers in Philadelphia to sign a code of conduct calling for shops to be more vigilant in spotting “straw” purchasers who buy guns in bulk for resale to criminals.

Reflecting on the event, Rod White, Circle of Hope Broad & Washington pastor, says he saw “devoted people (and a lot from Circle of Hope!) who wanted to honor Jesus on Good Friday by hoping for life in the midst of death.”

“Life doesn't have to be this way.”

A young participant from Circle of Hope holds a sign during the demonstration outside The Shooter Shop.For one member of Circle of Hope, the issue of gun violence—and the significance of anti-violence demonstrations like this—hit very close to home.

“When I was a kid growing up in North Philadelphia, I was so used to hearing gunshots that I didn't even notice them most of the time,” says Michael Johnson, business manager for Circle of Hope and member of the Frankford & Norris congregation. “I thought gun violence was just a part of life.”

Johnson says that events like this vigil help him to remember Christ's call to nonviolence and to re-commit himself to being an advocate for peace.

“Now that I'm older, Jesus has taught me that life doesn't have to be this way,” he adds. “If we—as followers of Christ—are the hands and feet, how can we not confront those who work against peace in the name of profit?”

Event organizers, including members of Circle congregations, are quick to point out that such direct actions are meant to curb illegal (not legal) gun sales.

"We are very specifically saying that we are not protesting to shut [The Shooter Shop] down. We are only asking that the Shooter Shop take advantage of the opportunity to lead with integrity,” remarked Shane Claiborne, a member of Circle of Hope Frankford & Norris, in a Huffington Post article.

Located in one of Philadelphia's most violent neighborhoods, The Shooter Shop was recently identified as one of the “Top 120 Gun Stores with the Most Guns Traced to Crime” in a report by the non-profit Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence .

The problem of "taking sides"

Members of the Psalters, a musical group with ties to the Circle of Hope network, lead vigil attendees in a hymn during their gathering. Josh Grace (second from right), pastor of Circle of Hope Frankford & Norris, is a member of the band.For Zack Jackson, member of Circle of Hope Broad & Washington, the event also hit close to home—but in a different way.

During the Good Friday vigil, Jackson—who says he was raised “in a very conservative [Christian] house where I was a member of the NRA before I was even baptized”—felt drawn to the counter-protesters who lined up outside The Shooter Shop to oppose the folks from Heeding God's Call.

“Until just a few years ago, I would have been on their side of the sidewalk waving my American flag and singing 'God Bless America' at the top of my lungs,” says Jackson.

Although Jackson, who describes himself as “a committed pacifist,” stood alongside his fellow Circle of Hope members on Good Friday, he recognizes the danger of vilifying those on the other side of the issue.

“People on our side of the sidewalk had made this image in their mind of the other side as ignorant, hateful, violent, compassionless brutes,” notes Jackson. “On the other side, they were yelling at us as if we were arrogant, hypocritical, conniving, America-hating Christians who were pushing a liberal agenda under the guise of faith.

“To some extent,” he surmises, “we were all guilty of living into those stereotypes and projecting them onto our 'opponents' because it is easier to fight against an ideology than a complex person with all their nuances.”

In the days since the vigil, Jackson has taken time to reflect on the dynamics of “taking sides”—and has noted the irony of such an action.

“Thinking about it more, I realize now that both 'sides' want the same thing,” he asserts. “We [the protesters] want illegal guns off the street because we don't want to see all of this needless death and violence that is destroying our city; they [the counter-protesters] want illegal guns off the street both because they don't want people to die and because they know that every person that uses a gun to commit a crime makes their lives harder.

“This got me thinking. We have legions of 'opponents' out there who are well-organized, passionate, and well-informed, and who are ready to fight toward the same ends as we are. Their methods differ from ours because their ideology is different, but that doesn't make them any less true and effective.”

Realizing this, Jackson has begun to arrange meetings between Heeding God's Call activists and those activists on the other side of the ideological divide. “As someone who is in the position of a strong pacifist and a life-long gun owner, I feel like I may have a unique role as 'translator' in this issue,” he notes. “I really think that most of the people on either side would be able to sit down together and brainstorm really effective and holistic ways to solve this problem that our city has. I'm in communication right now with some of the counter-protesters in an attempt to sit down with them and listen to their feelings and ideas. I hope that after a while, we can stop fighting each other and more effectively fight our real problem: gun violence.”

An ongoing “battle”

Vigil attendees, including folks from Circle of Hope, pray outside The Shooter Shop on Good Friday.The Good Friday vigil was just one of the many ways members of Circle of Hope have opposed gun violence in Philadelphia. Shalom House, an intentional community of “creative peacemakers” sponsored by Circle of Hope, works with a variety of initiatives in the city meant to curb gun violence and provide education about straw purchasing and arms trafficking.

Additionally, members of the Circle community have been involved in prior anti-gun violence demonstrations. In January 2009, Mimi Copp—a member of Circle of Hope Broad & Washington and a resident in the Shalom House—was arrested and charged with misdemeanor violations while asking James Colosimo, former owner of the now-closed Colosimo's Gun Center, to sign the code of conduct. Copp and the four others who were arrested were acquitted of all charges.

Read more about Circle of Hope's work with anti-gun violence advocacy.

Confronting “a dire situation”

Though just a part of the overall witness against violence advanced by Circle of Hope and its members, the Good Friday vigil was nonetheless an important step toward ending gun violence in Philadelphia, according to many event attendees.

“There was a real sense of urgency because we all knew that any one of us or our loved ones could be the next person that falls victim to the absurd amount of gun violence in this city,” says Jackson. “There was a power in our brokenness. My prayers just felt so strong that day.”

“There needs to be something done about the violence in our city,” declares Johnson. “In 2009, in Philadelphia, 173 people were killed by firearms. My Philadelphia brothers and sisters deserve to live in a city where they don't have to fear getting gunned down. My Philadelphia mothers and fathers deserve to live in a city where they don't have to bury their children. Gun shop owners have been turning a blind eye for too long. As a follower of Jesus, I can't ignore my convictions.”

Overall, says White, events like this vigil create a sense of “doing something very radical” in the name of Jesus Christ. “I feel that this is an extremely positive thing that is being organized,” he adds. “I am grateful for the people who have put themselves on the line to draw attention to this dire situation.”

Story by Devin Thomas | Photos by Jamie Moffett [jamiemoffett.com]