To mark the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, which left 20 students and six adults dead, a vigil for victims of gun violence was held at Washington National Cathedral last week.
The vigil, sponsored in part by the Newtown Foundation, was a service to remember and honor the more than 30,000 people who lose their lives to gun violence each year. It provided a space for the community to come together in prayers for hope, peace, and love.
After three minutes of silence during the calling bells, a trio of faith leaders, including a rabbi, a Sikh leader, and a Christian minister, offered up calls to prayer. At his turn to speak, Dr. Rajwant Singh affirmed that “whichever way we reach out to God, we can become separated from each other by ignorance, hatred, and violence.” “Each heart is God’s heart, and each body is God’s temple,” Singh continued, “so if you want to honor God, don’t take anyone’s life, or break anyone’s heart.”
The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, spoke against the “epidemic gun violence” continuing to plague the United States. Hall strongly proclaimed that, despite its strong legislative ties, “the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby,” also noting, “as Christians, we follow one who died at the hands of human violence.”
Those gathered heard from immediate family members of loved ones who had been lost due to an act of gun violence. After hearing each story, attendees participated by responding in solidarity “We will remember,” and “We will not be silent.”
While the remembrance ceremony was intentionally created as a nonpolitical time of reflection and prayer, survivors of gun violence, as well as families who had lost someone, asked elected officials to pass legislation that would keep guns out of the hands of those who could become a threat to others. Speakers asked for common-sense laws that could prevent future violence, such as mandatory background checks on gun purchases.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, congressional delegate for the District of Columbia, called those grieving to persistence. Extending her arm around the cathedral’s podium, she said, “This is where we honor dignitaries who have died, and where we mourn national tragedies.” It is fitting to honor the victims of Sandy Hook and Columbine, Tucson and Fort Hood, Aurora and the Navy Yard in this way, ticking off the names of places where other mass shootings had occurred. “We have been anointed to persist in their name,” exhorted Norton.
The vigil include the singing of “The Angel’s Lullaby” by the World Children’s Choir and a hymn by Carole King, as well as a violin performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” in memory of its author, a victim of gun violence who died 33 years ago the same week.
Rev. Matthew Crebbin of Newtown Congregational Church encouraged listeners that “even though the shadows of despair press upon so many, let us pray for grace to appear in the dark of the night of fear and apathy. A light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”
At the vigil’s close, attendees, holding the distributed small candles, filed through the exits singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
During this holiday season, many families are facing the pain of empty chairs, their loved ones having been taken from this world through an act of gun violence. For many, the keen ache of their absence will be afresh, but for far too many others, it marks another year without their father, mother, son, daughter, brother, or sister.
For those missing someone, I want to offer Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Please know that God grieves with you.
My prayer for all who have been affected by this issue echoes the words of Rev. Kenneth Samuel of Victory for the World Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia: “Please let our profound grief over gun violence continue to encourage us, to engage us in reckless and wanton acts of compassion and care.”
Anna Hall is campaigns assistant for Sojourners.