Five weeks after a gunman murdered 17 people at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., progressive faith leaders and local politicians called Pittsburghers to action against gun violence in their own community.
“We need to talk to each other,” said Sally Jo Snyder, a United Methodist Church minister, to the crowd of about 150 community members in the Katz Auditorium of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh on March 19. “We need to ask why is it always young white men who are doing this.”
The two-and-a-half-hour forum was called “Faithful Responses to Gun Violence,” and was sponsored by the Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, the Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement of the JCC, and the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The interfaith event featured addresses by several speakers, including clergy, Mayor Bill Peduto, state Rep. Dan Frankel, as well as several individuals whose lives had been impacted by gun violence.
Your job is to make it uncomfortable for us to live with the status quo.
While it was the Parkland school shooting that most recently refocused the country’s attention on gun violence, many of the program’s presenters reminded the crowd that some neighborhoods are forced to grapple with deaths caused by guns on a daily basis.
Such is the case for Rev. Tim Smith, director of the Center of Life in Hazelwood, who recounted burying countless “babies — boys between the ages of 14 and 26. Black boys.”
“It’s like a triage of young men coming through our church in caskets,” he said.
There were boys he had buried who had just finished their master’s degrees, boys with their potential and future senselessly snuffed out by gunfire.
“The stereotype that the person who is shot is involved with something crazy is not the case,” Smith said.
He recalled walking out onto Sylvan Street one day and seeing a beige jeep filled with U.S. Army artillery.
“How does this get into our community?” he asked. “I called the police and the media, and it was never reported on.”
In 2016, Smith decided to do something to underscore the volume of violence saturating his community. Inspired by the Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs Holocaust Sculpture on the grounds of Community Day School, Smith created an exhibit memorializing the lives lost in his neighborhood. The exhibit features photos of the victims, along with objects reflecting their hobbies, and a quote from either the victim or a member of his family.
“You have to understand how important one life is,” Smith said.
Karen Hacker of the Allegheny County Health Department’s office of violence prevention, noted that the vast majority of people dying from gunfire are African American young men, citing data from 1999-2015.
“Unfortunately, we’ve become immune,” she said. “We should be looking at violence as if it were an infectious disease.”
Much gun violence is connected to drugs and drug sales, she said, and “there needs to be a community outpouring of resources to make a difference.”
“It’s high time we are focused on this issue,” Hacker continued, adding that is “very sad” that it takes a shooting like the one in Parkland “to refocus on this issue when we see this every day.”
It is not an option for people of faith to refrain from taking action in the face of endemic violence, Rabbi Jamie Gibson, senior rabbi of Temple Sinai, told the crowd.
Quoting first from Leviticus, Gibson recited the mandate to “not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
“You do not get to not care,” he instructed.
Next, Gibson quoted from Deuteronomy: “Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind.” Applying the precept to contemporary times, that prohibition means, the rabbi said, that “you may not sell a weapon to someone with a proclivity to a violent act.”
He urged the crowd to take action to improve mental health services and secure laws requiring effective background checks.
“We have to get off our tush and choose life,” Gibson said.
Mayor Bill Peduto cautioned against accepting routine gun violence as “normal.”
“We are getting to the point where places of worship and schools are homes to violence,” he said. “People are going to a concert and never coming home. We can’t accept it and we can’t allow society to accept it. We need to find a way to say this is not normal.”
Frankel implored the community to become advocates of change. He pointed to a gun control law passed in Florida following the Parkland shooting that had been opposed by the National Rifle Association as an example of producing change through legislation.
“Your job is to make it uncomfortable for us to live with the status quo,” Frankel said.
Other speakers included Lavonnie Bickerstaff of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, who spoke of grassroots efforts in working with at-risk communities to stop violence, and Rev. Doug Patterson of the Smithfield United Church of Christ.
Unfortunately, we’ve become immune. We should be looking at violence as if it were an infectious disease.
Mara Hellman, a retired special education teacher from Shadyside, said she came to the program because she is “pretty disgusted with the number of guns causing violence in our cities and schools and communities and I would like to be a part of the change.”
Several anti-violence organizations, including CeaseFire PA, had set up information tables at the event, offering opportunities for people to get involved.
“I’m going to see about community meetings and look into one of these organizations,” Hellman said. “I think this was an effective meeting and I’m motivated to do something about it.”
Because of the proliferation of gun violence in the United States, including Southwestern Pennsylvania, the Federation’s CRC saw a duty in helping to organize the program and inform the community, said CRC director Josh Sayles.
“Gun violence has been an issue in the United States and Southwestern Pennsylvania for a long time,” he said. “In the last few years, unfortunately, it’s become a more pressing issue. It’s our responsibility as the CRC to bring together the Jewish community and the Greater Pittsburgh community to educate ourselves on controversial issues.
“I am really grateful the JCC and the Christian Associates worked with us to put together a really successful event,” he added. “We hope this is the start of a conversation and not the end of it.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.