[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Benjamin Gildas, rector of Incarnation Holy Sacrament Episcopal Church in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, is no stranger to gun violence. In 2015, he lost one of his closest friends, a U.S. Army veteran, when the friend publicly shot and killed someone and then took his own life with a handgun.
“He was not the same after his second tour in Iraq,” Gildas told Episcopal News Service. “I was in shock, but when I thought about it, I thought about how different he had been, and I wonder what more we could have done to give him the care he obviously needed for his PTSD and for whatever mental health damage had been done with his time over there.”
Gildas said the experience has helped shape the way he preaches about gun violence at church. When he learned that an interfaith coalition was holding an anti-violence gathering Nov. 14 and 15 in the state capital, Harrisburg, Gildas knew he wanted to join fellow Episcopalians from across Pennsylvania as they protested gun violence.
Nineteen days before the two-day event started, a man shot and killed 18 people in Lewiston, Maine, where Gildas’ 12-year-old daughter lives.
“It just reinforced my passion for wanting to work on these issues, on a state and local level, which is where we really need to do the most work,” he said.
Bishops in the state’s five Episcopal dioceses have been leading voices in the interfaith coalition, Saving Lives: Ending Gun Violence.
Its “faith in action” event started Nov. 14 with a demonstration of guns being melted and formed into garden tools, followed by an evening interfaith prayer service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral. The next day began with an interfaith prayer breakfast, featuring local and state officials discussing gun reforms that were recently passed by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
Leaders from 15 different faith traditions, from Baha’i to reform Judaism, participated, including bishops from the Episcopal dioceses of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Central Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh.
“Ecumenical and interfaith [coalitions] are important, because unity around the issue of gun violence is super important,” Central Pennsylvania Bishop Audrey Scanlan told ENS. “Faither leaders from all kinds of backgrounds are saying, from our faith perspective, enough is enough. We need action to save lives from gun violence, and when we do it together, it’s louder. It’s more visible. It makes more of a statement.”
On average, 1,600 Pennsylvanians die from gun violence every year, and an additional 3,000 are injured, according to data compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Nov. 16, 37,690 people in the United States have died from gun violence this year, including 21,120 from suicide, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an American nonprofit that catalogs every gun-related death in the United States.
“I think a lot of times we people aren’t as aware of how much of an issue suicide is or how much of the gun deaths that happen every year in our country are from people taking their own lives, Gildas said.”
Currently, 21 states have implemented some sort of temporary transfer law — also known as extreme risk laws or red flag laws — but Pennsylvania isn’t one of those states. Under temporary transfer laws, law enforcement agencies have the authority to temporarily remove firearms from individuals who are deemed an “imminent risk of causing harm to themselves or others.”
“We need to help people understand that guns can’t solve the gun problem,” said the Rev. Martha Harris, advocacy committee chair of Saving Lives: Ending Gun Violence and priest-in-charge of Saint Paul Episcopal Church in Columbia and Saint Luke Episcopal Church in Mount Joy.
“It’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck effort, and the faith community cannot sit silently by. They’ve got to be directly involved with their congregations – with their public voices on the pulpit – to help people understand that we’re not anti-gun,” Harris told ENS. “We’re anti-murder, anti-loss of innocent lives, and we are pro-safety. God wants us to love one another as he loves us. We can’t be good neighbors if we’re killing each other.”
Even though fewer hunting licenses are purchased every year, recreational hunting is still a significant activity in Pennsylvania. Scanlan told ENS that the coalition’s goal is not to take guns away from hunters, but rather to ensure that those firearms are safely secured when not in use and to keep them away from people who would be flagged under a temporary transfer law.
“You can be a hunter and fill your freezer with venison for the winter. I’m still being a Christian who works for justice and peace and loves our neighbors ourselves. I don’t see those as opposing values,” she said.
After the prayer breakfast, participants gathered at the Pennsylvania State Capitol’s steps to recite the names of people who have lost their lives to gun violence. The recitation was followed by a “solemn procession” around the Capitol. The event concluded with an interfaith news conference in the Capitol Rotunda.
“Gun violence is an epidemic, and it needs to stop,” Gildas told ENS.
In March, the five Pennsylvania dioceses’ bishops rallied inside the Capitol in Harrisburg to push for gun reforms at the state level, reflecting The Episcopal Church’s long history of advocating for gun-safety measures in the United States. In 2022, General Convention approved a resolution calling for “investment in evidence-based community violence intervention programs and strategies that address gun violence as a public health issue; improve physical environments; strengthen anti-violence social norms; engage and support youth; reduce substance abuse; mitigate financial stress; reduce the harmful effects of the justice process; and confront the proliferation of guns.” Pennsylvania Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez proposed the resolution.
Episcopalians can learn more about the church’s gun control and gun safety prevention legislation dating to 1976 here.
-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.