Silent lawn displays are one way churches cry out about gun violence
The Rev. John McIver Gage said he should have been writing his sermon that Saturday morning.
But gun violence was getting to him. The previous Tuesday, May 24, an armed assailant killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex. — the latest in a series of mass shootings. “The pain and frustration was in my bones, and I needed to do something with my body to work it through,” he said.
He went to the basement of the Congregational Church of Needham, Mass., where he serves as senior minister. He brought out 21 chairs and set them up on the church lawn. It was the start of a display that grew to bear witness to four recent mass killings.
Like similar memorials elsewhere, the one in Needham prompted news coverage and community conversation on gun violence. In West Milton, Pa., local residents — some of them in tears — stopped to view a display at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. At First Church in Oberlin, Ohio, a chair memorial drew dozens of grateful reactions and “shares” on social media.
Mass shootings this year
The Uvalde shooting prompted church-based memorials in several states, in a year that has already seen 246 mass shootings in which four or more people were killed or injured. Over the weekend of June 3-5 alone, three people were killed and five injured in a shooting in Philadelphia, and another six were killed and dozens injured in Arizona, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
At least, said UCC pastors, the silent memorials were a way not to be silent. “It’s all temporary, of course,” Gage said, noting that the Needham memorial would come down to make room for the church’s annual outdoor flea market the second Saturday in June. “But just because we can’t do everything, forever, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something now.”
‘What God must think’
“I was inspired to create this memorial by an email from a longtime mentor, who was reflecting on how powerless she — and we all — feel in the face of this ongoing epidemic of gun violence in our nation, especially after so many years,” Gage said. After putting what he described as “old, unused Sunday school chairs” on the lawn, he added two more sections to the memorial.
“I went to a nearby grocery store and spoke to the manager about borrowing 10 shopping baskets.” Gage arranged these to honor the victims of the racist May 14 killing at a Buffalo supermarket. “And I dragged out an old, one-seater pew we had in a corner somewhere since our last renovation.” This honored the man who died in a May 15 mass shooting at a church in Laguna Woods, Calif.
“While I was arranging them on the lawn, someone walking their dog stopped to engage me, and we had a 15-minute conversation, not just about how awful the shootings were, but what God must think of it all, if there is a God,” he said.
‘Prayer is not enough’
“When I was done, I took a picture and posted it to our town Facebook group, with a call for common-sense gun control.
“It immediately drew several comments, a majority of which were positive. The moderators, knowing such conversations often get out of hand there and fearing Facebook would shut down the group as problematic, cut off comments. But the likes kept pouring in, more than 300 in just a couple of days. I’ve also had non-church-affiliated folks in the community email the church to express their thanks and support.”
A week later he added four signs with red crosses for the people killed in the June 1 medical center in Tulsa. And he posted a 39-second video of the display on social media and at the church’s website, with these words superimposed: “O God, even the church knows prayer is not enough. Commonsense gun control now.”
‘When will this stop?’
In West Milton, 65 miles north of Harrisburg, the idea for a memorial was prompted by a Facebook picture of chairs displayed on a church lawn in Ohio.
“I was talking to our church board president, Brad Gill, and, with tears in my eyes, I shared with him the picture,” said the Rev. Timothy Hogan-Palazzo, minister of the West Milton church. “He looked at me and asked if I would like to do something like this. Without hesitation I said yes — and he moved into action. The chairs, our own children’s chairs, were up for one week and were lit at night.”
St. Paul’s is near a highway exit, just blocks from the town’s middle and high schools. “So thousands would have driven by the memorial, and local media outlets did contact us to do some beautiful stories,” Hogan-Palazzo said. “Dozens of people in the community stopped to take pictures. The feedback has been nothing but supportive.
“As we walked out onto our church’s front lawn the first night to view the chairs, community members began to stop by — some falling into my arms in tears, asking, ‘When will this stop?'”
Hogan-Palazzo described St. Paul’s as a “very diverse congregation in socioeconomic and political leanings.” “I often share we have members of Moms Demand Action and active NRA members sitting side by side,” he said. “But the most important piece of that is that we are a faith family first and foremost. So we focus on how we can show one another grace, love and respect.”
Hogan brought up the recent massacres in his May 29 sermon. His theme, love, received what he described as “resounding amens” in response. He preached on Jesus’ prayer for his disciples that “the world will know that you [God] sent me and that you have loved them just as you have loved me” (John 17:20-26).
“And I spoke on how our actions have not honored Jesus’ prayer, how we have not loved to make a difference in the world,” Hogan-Palazzo said. ” … And if we ourselves loved all others, it could and would make a difference in the world. For we never know how the seeds of love we show to others may impact them and help prevent acts of violence in the future, if we but love and live in a way to make a difference.”
Gun violence also came up May 29 at First Church in Oberlin. Its pastor, the Rev. David Hill, preached on how the enslaved woman in Acts 16 is sometimes seen as a “bit player” in the larger story of Paul and Silas. “I talked about how we treat people as bit players today – including children, because we make Second Amendment more important than their safety.”
After the service, worshipers were invited to take action. Director of Faith Formation Jennifer Bertoni helped those who wished to contact the Ohio legislature, asking that firearm training requirements not be lowered for gun permits for teachers. (Lawmakers voted three days later to lower training hours from 700 to 24.)
News of mass shootings have made people at First Church both sad and frustrated, Hill said. “I think there’s a huge amount of sadness,” he said. “I’d use the word lamentation. And I’m hearing more people sick and tired of living in a state ‘where my voice doesn’t count.’ And understandably so. But part of my answer is, ‘Isn’t it all of our responsibility to hang in in this fight?'”
‘What we believe’
For its outdoor memorial — at the intersection of two state highways in the center of Oberlin — First Church used “actual chairs from our Sunday school classroom,” Hill said. He said Bertoni suggested the idea after seeing a Facebook picture of a chair memorial at Church of the Saviour, a United Methodist congregation in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
First Church, too, then posted a picture of its own display, resulting in “a huge reaction on Facebook,” Hill said. He said this included “a lot of sadness, and a lot of thankfulness that somebody would do it” — and no negative comments at all.
He said the physical outdoor display, which was up May 25 through 29, was important to his colleague, Bertoni. “She felt we are pretty good about witnessing within the church — preaching to the choir, so to speak — but, for her it was really important to have a witness outside the church walls,” Hill said. “On Facebook it’s too easy to scroll by. This is a tangible, visible witness at a main intersection.”
Lawn as witness
That kind of public witness has been important to the Needham church, too. Gage said its displays over the last three years have included:
- 11 “expanded-LGBTQ+-Pride-colored pots with giant sunflowers.”
- A lighted labyrinth “on the front lawn, not the back, with a sign saying, ‘Please walk on the grass.'”
- “Nearly 10,000 white flags representing COVID deaths in our state in the first wave of the pandemic.”
“I’ve been actively working to make our wide church lawn, just across from the post office, part of an ongoing conversation with our neighbors, most of whom will never set foot in our sanctuary for one reason or another,” Gage said. “Regardless, it’s an opportunity to let the wider community know what we believe and how we believe it.”
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