Lamenting Gun Violence

Nov 15, 2023 | Stories from the Diocese

Candles Lamenting Gun Violence

The service included a ritual in which each participant was given the name of a person who had died at the hands of gun violence in Richmond this year. They could then come forward to place a votive candle on the altar and pray for that person.

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” This hymn opened the Service of Community Lament held at St. Thomas, Richmond on November 5 – specifically, lament over the epidemic of gun violence. It is part of a series called: Beyond Thoughts and Prayers: A Pastoral and Prophetic Response to Gun Violence. “Beyond Thoughts and Prayers” seeks to move people from grief over gun violence, to a healing awareness of God’s presence in the midst of that violence, to public prophetic witness, and local action for justice. The series hopes to also make the Church visible to and present for those who may not usually attend church.

The program was conceived by the Rev. Deacon R. Dale Smith, assisting clergy at St. Thomas. “I’ve felt a call to respond to gun violence in some form since the 2012 school shooting in Sandy Hook,” said Dale. “I’ve written many, many letters, gone to demonstrations, gone to vigils. Still, I wondered, what else can I do?”

Dale said the idea for a program-year series came to him during his studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific last year. There, his class “Gospel of the Masses” introduced him to the concept of “liturgical direct action.”

“I thought, maybe there could be a series that moves people from grief over gun violence to healing, then to public witness and action — a series that would start in  church but move to the streets, making the church visible to those who might not ever step inside a sanctuary,” he recalls. 

“Beyond Thoughts and Prayers” began in October with lament writing workshops. These small group meetings allowed people to share their thoughts and feelings over gun violence with each other and with God, using Psalm 13, a Psalm of lament, as a model.  From those workshops, Dale gathered language and ideas to compose prayers for a service of lament.  “The laments truly were the prayers of the people,” he says.

Four Episcopal churches and one Presbyterian church participated in the October workshops. Those who attended the subsequent lament service found the experience cathartic. Dale feels “We don’t give ourselves permission to grieve – to shake our fist at God and say ‘Why?’” This service made space to do that.

Coming up on December 3, St. Thomas will host a Service of Community Healing from Gun Violence. All are invited to attend. You do not need to have participated in the previous activities.

Spring events in the series are currently being planned: A how-to meeting with local activists about curbing gun violence, and public, outdoor “liturgical direct action” to bring transformation and good news to Richmond’s streets.  “Ideally, the public action will be evangelism in the best sense,” Dale says. 

If you think this series could be a model for your church to grieve, heal, and act to address gun violence, contact the Rev. Deacon Dale Smith for more information. And check out the many resources provided by the Bishops United Against Gun Violence.