[Episcopal News Service – Washington, D.C.] Rain, snow, and temperatures that were barely above freezing did not deter a group of about 400 Episcopalians from taking to the streets of the nation’s capital March 25 to transform the traditional re-enactment of Jesus’ journey to Calvary and the tomb into a prayer procession meant to challenge what they called a culture of violence.
The modern-day version of the ancient Holy Week ritual of the Stations of the Cross began outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, at the corner of 16th and H streets northwest, across from the White House. The moving liturgy went past the White House and concluded on the west steps of the U.S. Capitol some two and a half hours later. Bishops, priests and deacons in the procession wore cassocks or other clerical attire, and the worshippers were led by a wooden cross as they made their way past the White House and down a lane of Pennsylvania Avenue that had been blocked off from traffic.
“You walked for Christ at a time when most people would have just gone inside and found something else to do,” Connecticut Bishop Suffragan James Curry told the worshippers after they finished the Way of the Cross.
At a “media availability” event before the Way of the Cross began, Curry had said that “the place of the church in our society is the place of Jesus Christ who faced down violence itself and died because of it.”
“We know that this is a struggle that will take years and years, and our pledge is continue to carry that cross for our children and for our society,” he said.
While there was mention in the liturgy of the ready availability of guns and the grief caused by gunplay, the worshippers during their stops near memorials, government buildings and works of art primarily offered prayers for an end to a culture of violence and the social and economic conditions that spawn violence.
The Stations of the Cross is an ancient ritual that commemorates the ordeal of Jesus from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate to his crucifixion and burial. Worshippers metaphorically walk with Jesus, stopping to offer prayers inspired by events, some legendary, that occurred as Jesus carried his cross.
Curry, Connecticut Bishop Ian T. Douglas and Bishop Suffragan Laura J. Ahrens organized the service days after the killing of 28 students, teachers and others at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14, 2012. Among those who died was Benjamin Andrew Wheeler, 6, who was a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown. The bishops worked in cooperation with Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, and a team from her diocese.
Other Episcopal bishops who participated in some or all of the event were Wayne Wright of Delaware, Nedi Rivera of Eastern Oregon, Mary Glasspool of Los Angeles, Larry Provenzano of Long Island, Gayle Harris of Massachusetts, Steven Miller of Milwaukee, Mark Beckwith of Newark, David Bailey of Navajoland, Rob Hirschfeld of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson (retired) of New Hampshire, W. Nicholas Knisely of Rhode Island, Dorsey Henderson of Upper South Carolina, Shannon Johnston of Virginia, Douglas Fisher of Western Massachusetts and Porter Taylor of Western North Carolina participated. The Rt. Rev. Dinis S. Sengulane, bishop of Lebombo, Mozambique, in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, who helped to end the civil war in his country and inspired the collection and conversion of weapons from that war for peaceful purposes, was also a participant.
Before the Stations of the Cross began, the bishops met at St. John’s to discuss pending legislation to reduce gun violence with Stephanie Valencia, principal deputy director of the Office of Public Engagement and Paul Monteiro, an associated director in that office.
Many of the bishops are part of Episcopalians Against Gun Violence, an ad hoc group of bishops, clergy and lay Episcopalians who are working, collectively and individually, to curb gun violence. The group has a Facebook presence and is on Twitter. The hashtag for the Stations of the Cross march was #DCWitness.
Shortly after the conclusion of the stations, most of the participants gathered in the Montpelier Room of the James Madison Memorial Building that is part of the Library of Congress for brief remarks from church and government leaders to support President Barack Obama’s call for gun reform and the legislative actions pending in Congress.
Bishops Curry and Douglas, and Sengulane of Mozambique, were among the speakers. Others included Connecticut Rep. John Larson, D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton and the Rev. Brenda Griton-Mitchell, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships of the U.S. Department of Education.
Holmes Norton, who was baptized in the Episcopal Church, said, “We in the District of Columbia know the gun lobby more than most,” noting ongoing efforts to prevent the District from enacting tough gun measures.
However, she said, people all over the country are stepping forward to call for laws meant to reduce gun violence “and this time we will not step back.”
Griton-Mitchell, a lawyer and an ordained Baptist minister, said, “I would rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” She insisted that in the Way of the Cross she had indeed seen a sermon.
Sengulane, who celebrated the 38th anniversary of his ordination and consecration as a bishop March 25, said having a gun in the house for protection is like having a poisonous snake for the same reason. There’s no guarantee whom it will bite. A gun is also a “very bad adviser” on how to handle conflict, he said.
The March 25 Stations of the Cross was the latest is a series of actions by Episcopalians across the church who are attempting to eliminate gun violence. Leaders at the denominational level have spoken out as well.
In mid-February, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, in written testimony to the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, urged lawmakers to “press for comprehensive and universal background checks for firearm ownership, regardless of where and how a gun is purchased; for bans on the availability to civilians of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines; and for policies designed to better regulate the manufacture of guns.”
Jefferts Schori noted that the Episcopal Church has said continually over more than 40 years “that the role of guns in our society’s culture of violence cannot be ignored.” And, while the church “supports the constitutional right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms,” the presiding bishop said, the church “is clear that federal, state, and local gun laws and enforcement activities should focus their efforts on keeping guns out of the hands of children and those who would use them to commit violent crimes.”
The presiding bishop could not participate in the Stations of the Cross in Washington, D.C. because she was in England for a meeting of the Anglican Communion Standing Committee, which followed the inauguration of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Douglas, who is also a member of the Standing Committee and attended the inauguration, attended the first two days of the meeting before returning to help lead the event.
In late February, the church’s Executive Council called on Episcopalians to “repent of our own roles in the glorification and trivialization of violence.” The resolution urges Episcopalians to work toward “comprehensive social responses that seek to stem the cycles of violence that fuel gun crime.”
It also called for making mental-health services available and accessible “without stigma in a variety of settings,” and available to “those who have suffered trauma from exposure to violence or violent environments.”
Resolution A&N004 urged elected officials to make gun trafficking a federal crime and empower law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute straw purchasers, gun traffickers and their entire criminal networks.”
And it urged Episcopalians to “examine our own cultural attitudes toward violence through efforts in congregations and communities [and] to repent of our own roles in the glorification and trivialization of violence, and to commit ourselves to another way.”
Just after the council meeting, House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings and Vice President the Hon. Byron Rushing issued a letter to General Convention deputies outlining council’s resolution and saying they hoped the deputies would “help lead the church to fulfill this resolution.”
On March 22, the Episcopal Public Policy Network, based in Washington, D.C., issued a policy alert here suggesting three steps Episcopalians could take to respond to the calls from the church’s leadership to advocate for an end to gun violence.
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.