Sight Magazine – Gun Violence: How Philadelphia DA Reform Teams Up With Clergy to Deal With Rising Tide of Shootings


Reverend Gregory Holston knows that the rate of gun murders in Philadelphia does not come with an easy fix. Former executive director of a local interfaith social justice group, Holston can list the root causes of gun violence in his town: “400 years of systematic racism, 250 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow and 100 years of years of redlining and divestment in black and brown communities.

School closures, the war on drugs, and exits from manufacturing jobs have all contributed, as has, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down community resources such as after-school programs, daycares, school meetings. addiction recovery and pantries, said Holston.

PHOTO: Jon Tyson / Unsplash / Creative Commons

In tackling the wave of violence, the work of faith communities is vital, said Holston. “There is a spiritual dimension to all of this,” he said. “The power of prayer can clash with the spiritual forces of violence, destruction and racism. There is no one else equipped to do it.

No one, except possibly the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, where Holston now works as a senior policy and advocacy adviser. Hired just as the pandemic began last year, he is one of many militant clergy who have teamed up with District Attorney Larry Krasner to fight the rising tide of gun deaths.

“There is a spiritual dimension to all of this. The power of prayer can clash with the spiritual forces of violence, destruction and racism. There is no one else equipped to do it.

Rev. Gregory Holston

Krasner, the defense lawyer-turned-reformist prosecutor who won a decisive victory in last month’s Democratic primaries in a city that votes widely for Democrats, said in a statement to Religion News Service that he considers the religious community as a key player. in the fight against armed violence.

Last week, the district attorney’s office hosted a forum on gun violence at the Church of Christian Compassion in the West End of Philadelphia. The next gathering will be in a mosque, and the next one in another church.

Krasner’s ties to the religious community date back more than a decade, to his defense of members of the Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence faith-based coalition, which works to curb the flow of illegal weapons. Several members had been arrested for an action of civil disobedience in which they had confronted the owner of a famous armory in Philadelphia.

The Rev. Myra Maxwell, a United Methodist minister, runs Philadelphia CARES, a program run by the prosecutor’s office that provides support to the victim’s family after a homicide. Maxwell said she helped develop the initiative “from scratch, because it has never been done in Philadelphia this way. And it certainly has never been done in a prosecutor’s office.

A third ordained minister, Baptist minister G Lamar Stewart, oversees the prosecutor’s community engagement unit, she said.

This spring, Philadelphia’s black clergy drew up a plan that called for increased funding for grassroots anti-violence groups and for the city’s schools and the appointment of a “czar” to find ways to curb the violence. .

By that time, in mid-March, more than 100 people had died from gunshot weapons. Now the number is over 250, a jump of more than 36% from the same period last year. Last year, according to The Philadelphia Investigator, the toll of gun violence was staggering, with nearly 500 people killed and more than 2,200 shot dead.

More money will be available to deal with the outbreak this year after Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney reaches a budget deal with city council that will add $ 68 million for anti-violence efforts to a total $ 155 million, a plan applauded by clergy and lawmakers. .

Gun violence in the United States in Philadelphia Larry Krasner

In this March 6, 2019, file photo, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks at a press conference in Philadelphia. PHOTO: AP Photo / Matt Rourke, file photo.

Reverend Thomas Higgins, rector of Holy Innocents Catholic Church in Juniata Park in North Philadelphia, serves a large number of neighborhoods that are suffering from rust, vandalism, the scourge of drugs and violence.

“If we ever want to turn around,” Higgins said, “we must take the message of the scriptures seriously. We believe that God has a bigger plan and that the word of God is part of it. “

Maxwell, the director of CARES who also runs Trinity UMC in downtown Philadelphia, said any kind of violence raises deep spiritual questions. “Where is God in there?” Where is my health, where is my support? How could God allow this to happen?

But spirituality alone cannot advance gun violence figures. Clergy and activists such as Holston are seeking to address long-term issues they believe are causing the crisis, and they are urging religious leaders to mobilize their herds to address them.

“I preach against this in church, but until the country establishes rules that will alleviate gun ownership,” Higgins said, after recalling the multiple funerals he has served, “I don’t don’t know what we can do. change, “I’m afraid we just keep burying these children and family members.”

Higgins belongs to a neighborhood group dedicated to combating the rise in violence, chaired by Steven Robinson, minister and founder of the Inter-Faith Social Change Movement, which works with offenders on parole and has designed programs to career for children from primary school. age.

Robinson notes that religious communities have long been among the most effective agents of social change, but said tackling gun violence requires a multi-faith, coalition-centric approach.

Believers “have to start talking about these things,” said Maxwell, suggesting that the clergy use the pulpit as a way to tell Philadelphians, “You are safe here, we want to provide these resources, we want to support you in your process. healing.

Local militants against gun violence say religious leaders have not always been so engaged in the struggle.

Civic leader and victim rights advocate Dorothy Johnson-Speight founded Mothers in Charge in 2003 after her son Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson was killed in an argument over a parking space. At the time, “we were fighting to involve the churches,” she said. “But that’s changing now. You talk to the black clergy, and they are really making a difference. “

The faith community gained momentum on the issue in 2009 with the founding of Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence. Executive director Bryan Miller said much of the group’s current work focuses on the suburbs of Philadelphia, where the organization sponsors traveling T-shirt memorials (“a colorful graveyard,” Miller calls them) , prayer vigils in places of worship and campaigns to promote legislative action.

“The faith community in Philadelphia has until recently not been sufficiently active against gun violence. There may be a lot of Sunday prayers and discussions, but in terms of grassroots actions in the neighborhoods and action to change the laws, there has not been enough. That is changing, however, ”Miller said.

Holston is optimistic that, once engaged, the power of faith and a God who stands by the side of the poor will turn the tide of gun violence. “These problems are going to come, and we are going to fight, we are going to fight with everything that we have,” he said. “I have confidence knowing that I am already on the winning side.”

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