In Florida, ‘Gun-Lock Safety Sunday’ is one way to ‘do something’
The plea to “do something” about gun deaths will get a concrete reply on Sunday, June 26.
That’s when United Church of Christ congregations in Florida will focus on getting people to lock their guns.
The state is no stranger to gun massacres, including those at Pulse, an Orlando nightclub, and at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The Rev. Patrick Rogers saw the results of both up close.
“I was with the families and students,” said the senior pastor of UCC of Fort Lauderdale. “Witnessing their pain will always be with me.”
He said a sign at a Parkland protest — plus lots of prayer, a visitor and a dream — led him to initiate Gun-Lock Safety Sunday.
How gun locks work
Recent supermarket and school shootings in Texas, New York and elsewhere are in the news in June 2022 — and the Florida gun-lock campaign notes them. But it’s equally about stopping other kinds of daily gun violence. These include suicide, acts of domestic violence, accidents and more, Rogers said.
Working with the UCC’s Florida Conference, Rogers helped distribute 10 free handgun locks and a packet of literature to each of the 88 UCC churches in the state.
The locks work by threading a cable through a handgun to keep ammunition out. This prevents a magazine from being inserted. And it keeps the gun’s slide mechanism from loading a bullet. It works with revolvers, too.
‘It’s that simple’
Rogers said he hopes each church will use Gun-Lock Safety Sunday to give away locks and literature — and to encourage all gun owners in their communities to secure their weapons.
“Guns are now the leading cause of death for children and teens,” according to a flyer in the packet. “An unlocked gun at home increases risk of homicide by 2 times, suicide by 3 times, and domestic-violence fatality by 5 times.”
He said the campaign is avoiding any position on gun-control laws.
“We are not entering that forum,” Rogers said. “Innocent adults and children are being murdered and much harm can be prevented. Families are devastated and suffering. Our youth and children are being wounded and dying.
“This gun-safety social justice action is not geared to ban firearms. It is solely to bring safety measures into place to save lives. It’s that simple.”
Pain and a journey
Being with survivors of the shootings in Orlando in 2016 and Parkland in 2018 was just the start of Rogers’ journey toward Gun-Lock Safety Sunday.
First came the slaughter at the LBGTQ-friendly Pulse nightclub. He said the “massacre of 49 innocent young people” took place when they thought “they were in a ‘safe space’ to be who God created them to be.”
“I was there a couple of days after the shooting to provide spiritual support,” he said. “I wore my clergy collar, which I don’t normally do, but I wanted them to know that the church supported them and loved them.
“It was heartbreaking, to the core of my being. To see the small stuffed animals from the victims’ homes stuffed into the chain-link fence and candles and flowers — the memorial kept growing, from a hurting community and nation. I would just stand at the memorial and cry. The hurt was too much.”
The following Sunday, worshipers at UCC of Fort Lauderdale wrote prayers on 49 ribbons. For 49 days, these hung as a memorial outside the church.
And then there was Parkland. He went there, too.
“I remember talking to a Dad, with his young son standing beside him,” Rogers said. “It was traumatic to experience, as the Dad could only speak of, ‘They’re not taking my guns,’ while his son standing next to him was in shock and traumatized. Seventeen children in the son’s school had just been shot and killed.” And 17 more had been injured.
“A week or so after the shooting, there was an anti-gun demonstration at Parkland,” Rogers said. “I attended, of course. But what struck me most was a picket sign that read, ‘Keep your thoughts and prayers and do something.’
“At first I took a little offense at that, but I soon realized there was truth in that message. I felt that global and national churches had lent a deaf ear to this social-justice issue and the people were crying to us — through and in their grief — to indeed help and do something, and not just pray.”
But pray he did — “fervently to God,” he said — about what to do.
A visitor and a dream
God’s answer, he said, started arriving in 2019, when “a lady named Barbara Markley visited our church.” She was with a gun-safety effort sponsored jointly by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and a local chapter of the League of Women Voters. “She walked into my office carrying 10 actual gun locks and some brochures explaining how gun locks will save lives. She had all the statistics regarding this issue.” They talked. She left the gun locks with him.
A year later, in a dream, he realized those items could be tools in a churchwide campaign. “In my sleep, the vision came that we can indeed do something as a church. … I called Barbara again and she came to my office. I asked her, ‘Can you get 1,000 of these locks? And more brochures?’ She said yes. It took nine months, but we received the 1,000 gun locks.”
He got the approval of the Rev. John Vertigan, Florida Conference minister, to take the campaign statewide. The Conference even provided a $1,000 social justice grant to cover postage for the packets of locks and literature.
On Gun-Lock Safety Sunday, Vertigan will preach at UCC of Fort Lauderdale. Another special guest will be “the aunt of one of the Parkland victims, who will be sharing her personal story about the murder of her nephew and the work her family is now doing,” Rogers said. One of Florida’s members of Congress may also be there.
Rogers said he wants that day in Florida to be the start of something national. His vision is that every UCC Conference will get every local UCC church involved. “We can send all the details about how it works and why and also the materials needed electronically,” he said. “And how each church can get at least 10 gun locks free through their local Veterans Administration.”
He has scheduled another Gun-Lock Safety Sunday for Oct. 2, 2022. And he has expanded it to that entire weekend to invite interfaith partners who worship on Friday or Saturday to take part.
He called the initiative “a solid, concrete way that the church can help those crying out in need — to let them know that we believe also that something must be done other than thoughts and prayers.”
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