The phone rang. My tech answered and turned to me, “Dr. Mitchell, it’s the ID Unit.”
I put down my clipboard and took off my first set of gloves.
“Hello, this is Dr. Mitchell,” I said.
“Dr. Mitchell, the family is here.”
The voice on the line was one of our staff responsible for helping families identify their loved ones after death. I was finishing up the external examination of a victim of gun violence. He was a 33-year-old black male who looked his stated age. He was strong and healthy and had a future cut down in his prime. He had three gunshot wounds: two to the chest and one to the head.
As a forensic pathologist, I often have to sit down with families at their worst moments. In this case, the family arrived and had not seen their son and brother. With tears rolling down her face, his mother said to me, “He was supposed to be here with me, his sister and his babies! He was such a great father and provider.”
It was hard for me to contain my own emotions. This young man was driving home when someone shot into his car. As I looked into the eyes of his mother and sister, I could only think about how sudden the loss was and how hard the reality of their current circumstance. Having done it hundreds of times, my job at that moment was to listen to the lamentation of the family and then walk them through the visual identification of their loved ones by showing them a picture.
Regardless of race, religion, gender or economic status, death due to homicidal or suicidal gun violence is sudden and unexpected. These deaths leave families in total awe and disbelief, sending families and communities into a tailspin that seemingly never ends. Imagine kissing your loved ones goodbye in the morning as they leave for the day, never to see them alive again. I have sat with these families hundreds of times, and it never gets any easier.
As we contemplate the effects of gun violence in our country, the mass shooting incidents capture our emotions. Making up less than 3% of all firearm-related deaths, mass shooting incidents still can affect the entire nation. These incidents force us into a ritualistic conversation about the effects of gun violence, the importance of the second amendment and whether or not there is room for an effective gun safety policy.
In May 2022, ten Black adults were gunned down and killed by a self-proclaimed white supremacist. He traveled hundreds of miles to a supermarket in a predominantly Black community to kill Black people. Only ten days after the Buffalo shooting, a young man killed 19 children and two adults at an Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Doctors were recently killed by an active shooter in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Invariably there will be another incident by the time this article is published.
We are in a state of emergency in America. Gun violence occupies the headlines of every news outlet. It is such a polarizing subject, with pro-gun advocates placed against those who choose gun control. No matter on what side you find yourself, we have to agree we must do something to prevent gun violence in our country. The church especially!
As leaders and ministers, we have specific responsibilities in our communities to serve the spiritual needs of our people and their physical needs. We are not only responsible for responding to gun violence by consoling families and performing funerals, but we have the added responsibility of walking alongside our families and advocating for policies that protect them from violence.
However, suppose we are going to protect our families from violence. In that case, we must take the time to understand what causes the violence. It is essential to understand that mass shootings will differ significantly from the smoldering violence we witness in urban communities, which will differ from the causes of suicidal violence. What type of violence is affecting your community? What kind of violence occupies the hearts and minds of those around you? What kind of injustice has led to the violence that sends mothers crying into the arms of their brothers?
In many communities, violence is bred out of poverty, racism and lack of opportunity. Lack of opportunity shows up as a lack of access to education, economics, housing and healthcare. Violence is a symptom of a more extensive system of oppression supported by disparate criminal legal practice and poverty. So, the injustice that we witness in the killing of our brothers and sisters can manifest years of oppression.
The Word is clear on how we are to respond to injustice. Micah 6:8 (NKJV) says it this way: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you, But to do justly,
To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” And so, when we are faced with the scourge of violence in our communities, we are called “to do justly.” When we are faced with death due to so many communities, we are called “to do justly.” What does doing justice mean to us as leaders in the church? We must first educate ourselves on the problem, educate ourselves on the effects of gun violence.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 45,000 firearm-related deaths in 2020. In 2020, 54% of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides (24,292), while 43% were homicides (19,384). The remaining gun deaths in 2020 were unintentional deaths (535), involved law enforcement (611), or had undetermined circumstances (400) (cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/injury).
Many do not realize that the majority of gun violence deaths are self-inflicted. Suicide is a leading cause of death that affects men greater than women, old greater than young and non-Hispanic white Americans greater than Black. Suicide rates in our country illustrate that gun violence affects all communities. Yes, homicidal gun violence is more significant in Black communities than any other. In fact, the No. 1 killer of Black males ages 10-34 is homicide: the majority due to gun violence.
Nonetheless, gun violence affects all communities. Sometimes the barrel of the gun is facing forward and sometimes backward. Whether gun violence is due to the inequities and poverty of racism that leads to homicide or the depression and anxiety that leads to suicide, there is a role for the church in its prevention. First, as church leaders, if we are going to "do justice," we will have to educate ourselves on the effects of gun violence. But the second thing that the church can do to decrease violence is to get into a relationship with the most suffering communities.
Relationships are what the church is good at it. We are good at creating an atmosphere of love and grace. We are called to create an atmosphere of forgiveness. We are called to take care of the widows and the fatherless. This calling is most important when we are looking to prevent gun violence. Going into the community and mentoring young men is a very effective way for the church to serve in decreasing violence. I don't mean to make it sound easy because it is not. Reducing violence is complex and requires a multidisciplinary approach that includes government, schools, businesses, hospitals, and the faith community if it is going to be successful.
Nonetheless, a consistent, caring adult is critical to the growth and success of a young person. Warning signs for violent behavior are identified when we are in a relationship. It is these relationships that serve to protect communities. However, many of our churches are not directly connected with their communities. Many churchgoers come to the building or consume services online, further isolating themselves from genuine relationships. In 2022, the church must intentionally connect with the most disenfranchised communities to develop a real connection that can sustain over time. That is the only way the love of Christ can permeate the atmosphere that breeds violence.
Lastly, after we’ve educated ourselves and then developed genuine relationships, the people of God must demonstrate love if we are going to decrease gun violence in the community. That seems so simple, but it is something that we do not readily display. As followers of Christ, we must understand that the work to develop relationships with those of us who are at most risk of violence will take consistency. Its consistency that shows up as love in the community. To show up consistently for a young person who may not have had anyone keep their word is the essence of love. It will take the type of love present amid the turmoil that will ultimately be effective in decreasing violence. It is a healing love that the community can put their faith in. Faith, not because it is our love but faith because it is the love of Jesus Christ.
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