On the front lawn of Sayville United Church of Christ on Long Island, N.Y., 20 backpacks and six teachers bags hang, each bearing the names and representing the 26 innocent lives that were lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn. The public display isn't an attempt at a tribute, says Rev. J. Gary Brinn, senior pastor at Sayville UCC. Instead, it's a call for tougher gun legislation in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 shooting that may save a future life.
"I am trying very hard not to call this a tribute. While, to the best of our knowledge, the educators that were victims that day were courageous, this is not about heroism," Brinn said. "This was the slaughter of innocents, and our project is one thing only: a prophetic cry for justice and for life."
Inspired by a similar project by Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei, Brinn came up with the idea for the Backpack Project last winter. Throughout the spring, the congregation collected new and used backpacks, as well as six bags to represent the teachers and administrators killed at Sandy Hook – including UCC member Victoria Soto. Deacon Hank Maust, Sayville UCC's Deacon for Prophetic Witness, took charge of the project and led a team to create the backpack display, which they hope to keep in place on the lawn through at least the beginning of the school year.
"For several months we have worked to realize a public witness in the form of an installation on the front of the church," Brinn said. "Deacon Hank Maust has worked tirelessly in recent days, organizing the backpacks [the congregation] donated."
In addition to the visible call for change, several members of the congregation signed a petition calling for a ban on military assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips in early January. The petition was directed at all the congregation's elected representatives of the state and federal government. The state of New York, which at that time was already considering gun reform laws, passed the first set of firearm legislation after Sandy Hook.
The text of the petition reads:
We, the undersigned Covenant Members, Friends of the Church and Guest Worshipers of Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ demand in the name of our God that you support legislation to permanently ban assault-type automatic weapons and the high capacity magazines used in such weapons. We urge immediate congressional action and call on our President, Barack Obama, to sign federal legislation immediately. We call on members of Suffolk County's delegation in Albany to support all possible measures appropriate to the powers of the State of New York to rid our communities of these weapons of mass murder, and call on Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign such measures into law.
"It is time that we turn from tragedy as entertainment to real action," Brinn said. "In a diverse congregation, there will always be some who dissent from the majority. That is our tradition and our strength. But this witness is bold and represents the overwhelming majority of our members."
The congregation will later determine what it will do to continue its witness once the display is taken down. Maust hopes that members will organize with the community around the issue to "do as the banner suggests and ‘Tell Washington to pass sensible gun control,' by flooding elected representatives with letters, emails and phone calls," he said.
Read more about the display on the Sayville UCC website.