How did this gun-owner-since-he-was-eight find himself at a prayer vigil to end gun violence on the steps of the Michigan state capitol? The easy answer is that Michigan Prophetic Voices, a nonpartisan, statewide organizing clergy group invited me to be there. But I had another reason.
In my family owning a gun was explained as a rite of passage, not as a Second Amendment right. When my father handed me my first gun he said, "You are old enough now to learn how to use this safely. There is one thing you have to promise me: never point it at anyone. If you do, I will take it away for good." I made the promise.
The man who said those words had heard different words from his father. "Never steal another man's property," my grandfather had told my dad, "and if it's yours, you fight like hell to keep it."
Those words shaped events of an early August morning in the 1970s when both of those men leveled shotguns at would-be burglars in the family business and, out of fear for their own lives, fired. One of those 20-something men was killed.
As I stood on the capitol steps holding a card with the name of a Detroit 17-year-old killed by gun violence in 2012, I remembered laying on my living room floor as a 6-year-old and hearing the gun shots that killed the would-be burglar. The name on the card read Exil Johnson. I wondered what the name of the would-be burglar had been because I felt a need to pray for him and his family too.
Like families do, my little sister and I were shielded from every detail of that summer night. I had no idea that the man who handed me my rite-of-passage weapon had not kept the promise he was asking me to make. But on that cold January morning in Lansing I knew why he had demanded it of me. When I baptized my dad in the late 1980s, all he said when he responded to the altar call was, "I just hope God can forgive me." He was still carrying — and still carries — the wounds of pulling that trigger.
The Second Amendment contained no healing in its words.
My dad carries other wounds too. After the events of that summer night were over, my grandfather walked up to my dad and put his arms around him. "I'm really proud of you, son," he said. It's the only time my father can remember hearing those words or feeling his father's embrace. On the capitol steps I prayed for my father's healing, and thanked God that I hadn't had to pull a trigger in order to hear those words or get a hug from my dad.
Moral suasion and political action must join forces if gun violence is going to stop. Ending violence means teaching fathers and mothers to always choose their words with an eye to their children's futures, and to find reasons to be proud of their children that are not related to violence or competition, as much as it means gun control laws. If only gun control was as simple as my father had made it for me.
"There is one thing you have to promise me: never point it at anyone. If you do, I will take it away for good." I have kept that promise. And watching my dad's pain because he didn't has moved me to make another promise, to myself: I will never take a life over something that is replaceable.
Today, my dad and I live on different sides of the theological and political spectrum, but we both still own guns and we both support commonsense gun control. As a pastor I am growing more comfortable bringing moral suasion and political action together in my own life and in the life of my congregation.
And I am grateful for groups like Michigan Prophetic Voices who helping clergy find their own prophetic voices so they can empower people to tell their stories prophetically as churches engage today's pressing issues.
Since its launch in April, 2012, Michigan Prophetic Voices members have organized CeaseFire youth anti-violence campaigns in Flint, Detroit, and Kalamazoo. More than 400 clergy sign-on letters were delivered urging Gov. Rick Snyder to veto legislation purposed to increase voter restrictions and ease concealed weapons rules. In the coming year MPV hopes to deepen its relationships with state and local officials in its statewide efforts to end gun violence, improve access to voting, restore the Michigan Earned Income Tax Credit, and improve school quality.
MPV was convened by the Flint Area Congregations Together and is supported by the national PICO Network and the Michigan Organizing Collaborative.
Rev. Bill Lyons is a pastor at St. John's United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Image: Bill of Rights, Charles Knowles / Shutterstock.com