We’re Bonded by Grief and Fueled by Hope. Will You Join Us?
December 23, 2022
The people who walked in darkness …
A few weeks ago, I met many people who regularly walk in darkness. I attended a two-day gun violence prevention summit in Washington, D.C. There were some 200 of us from all over the nation — advocates, policy shapers, religious leaders — and many survivors of gun violence. I had lunch with a young woman from Chicago whose 16-year-old sister died from a gunshot, and some 10 years later, a gunman murdered her 22-year-old brother. They did not find the shooter. Her grief has led her to search for her brother’s killer, which inspired her to become a corrections officer at a prison. Instead of being choked by bitterness and fueled by aggression, she makes a point of listening to the stories of inmates and developing a fragile community of trust.
… They have seen a glorious light.
She couldn’t say that the light she sees is all that bright, but it is there: she sees a flicker of light in the eyes of those confined to a life behind bars; and as she told me her story, I could see the light in her commitment to compassion.
Before the vigil and memorial service on the second day, I sat next to a bishop of a Pentecostal Church in Hartford during dinner. She told me she had spent the last 20 years walking the streets of the city. The many gang members she meets call her “Auntie.” They look for her, an apostle of hope and a bearer of light, amidst much violence and darkness. She keeps at it in her retirement; the only woman carrying out this unique ministry of building relationships with young men whom much of the world has deemed to be expendable.
Later, at the vigil service, President Biden addressed the packed church with stories of his own darkness —losing a son to cancer, and a daughter and wife killed in a car accident by a drunk driver. Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the stage after, who over the years has developed a relationship with many of the gun crime survivors who attend the annual service. Senators Murphy and Blumenthal of Connecticut also spoke, as they do every year, to share how their lives have changed and their commitment has deepened since the Sandy Hook massacre, which observed its 10th anniversary on December 14.
Parents of an Uvalde school shooting victim, a Pulse shooting survivor, a son of the Buffalo shooting victim, and survivors of the Oxford, Michigan, Parkland and Sandy Hook school shootings offered testimonials. A total of 122 survivors from 22 states came to the microphone, holding pictures of their loved ones, reciting their names and the dates they died. It was a continuous wave of pain—and the corresponding darkness felt like a pernicious dust that would never wash off.
And yet there was light.
At the end of the service, the whole assembly held up candles, offering small beacons of hope in all that darkness. To me, the candles symbolized the honoring of grief, and offered the possibility of healing. The survivors have built life-saving relationships amongst themselves — as they are members of a community none of them ever wanted to join, and from which much of the world tries to keep a safe distance. When darkness takes over a survivor’s life, as inevitably happens, their compatriots stand with them in the soul-consuming shadows, offering support, hope and pathways toward the light.
In an Uber on the way back to where I was staying, the driver was playing a radio station featuring a preacher who maintained that in the last 20 years men have lost nearly 80% of their testosterone. “We don’t have men anymore.” He believed that giving a teenager ready access to the internet is worse than heroin. He cited the tyranny of the government and public education, which, taken together, have made a fierce commitment to indoctrinate young minds with hatred for America … and on and on it went. A soliloquy of fear. It was an emotional and spiritual whiplash from what I had just experienced at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.
His was a false darkness. In front of the real darkness, his rant put up a firewall. His intent, which seemed to work, as my driver said that the disembodied voice made sense to him, is to package fear as truth —citing a wild litany of misinformation, which will then shut down any attempt to pursue a truth that can only unearth itself from the darkness.
One can manipulate fear. Not darkness.
The vigil and memorial service was a journey into real darkness. In that depth of pain, grief had a voice, and stories of loss heard and honored. It was a liturgy that opened up pathways for healing.
And the words, music, prayers and processions kindled a light.
Mark Beckwith is the co-founder of Faith Leaders for Ending Gun Violence, a national ecumenical group of diverse religious leaders. Ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1979, he served parishes in Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Elected Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, he served in that capacity for 12 years until his retirement in 2018. As an active bishop, he helped reorganize the Coalition of Religious Leaders of New Jersey and helped found the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope and Peace. He currently serves as the Bishop Liaison for Bishops United Against Gun Violence, a network of 100 bishops he co-founded after the Newtown, Connecticut, killings in 2012. He is the author of “Seeing the Unseen: Beyond Prejudices, Paradigms and Party Lines,” (Morehouse Publishing, 2022) and he writes regularly on his website. A graduate of Amherst College and Yale Divinity School, he lives in New Hampshire.