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Sample Sermon: Gun Violence Prevention, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Sermon on Waking Up: Gun Violence & Inequality

Rosh Hashanah 5773, Rabbi Lauren, Kol Tzedek

Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep!

O you slumberers, awake from your slumber!

Search your deeds and turn in Teshuvah….

Look to your souls and better your ways and actions."1(MIshneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4)

Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish commentator, wrote these words about the SHOFAR, reflecting on the power and potency of this humble hollow instrument.

According to Maimonides, it is as if the Shofar cries to us: Yo!!!! Stop sleeping! Wake up! Today, on Yom HaDin -- The Day of Judgment -- it’s time to face some difficult truths! It’s time to awaken to what we may be consciously or unconsciously ignoring! It’s time to examine our own actions and inactions! It’s time for us to change our path so that we are better serving God and Truth.

This Rosh HaShanah, as the shofar is sounded, I am aware of what I hard truths I am awakening to. For through the very process of preparing for the High Holidays, I have found myself in the midst a “wake-up call,” which is shaking me out of my complacency and calling me into action. Today, I want to share that wake-up call with you.

My journey toward waking up began on July 21. I was staying with the kids at my mom’s house the evening before. When I woke up the next morning, my mother told me about the shooting at the midnight showing of Batman in Colorado. Jon, my husband, a fan of the recent Batman movies, had been planning to go to a midnight showing that opening night. I breathed a sigh of relief – he didn’t go! He was safe! Now, even though there were no incidents in any Philadelphia movie theatre– the very idea of a mass shooting 1700 miles away from us was enough to shake me up to the idea that I could lose him in a split second. The randomness of the violence, the idea of innocent people doing the most American thing possible – watching a Hollywood Blockbuster -- just all seemed so crazy and unbelievable. I joined with much of the nation in the shock of this tragedy.

And then, the summer continued and the shootings continued. A terrible assault motivated by hate and ignorance left six members of a Sikh religious community dead. Then, on August 24, a disgruntled former employee fired a gun in the middle of Manhattan, shooting eight people and killing one. Three days later, a Baltimore, Maryland boy opened fire on the first day of school. The fact that these incidents occurred so close in time, compounded by the complete silence of either presidential candidate on the issue of gun control, propelled my desire to address the growing violence in one of my talks on the High Holidays.

My initial focus turned to the proliferation of guns in our country, the easy access of guns and of course, the illegal sale of guns that enables those with criminal backgrounds, mental illness, or who are underage to acquire firearms. In that process, I learned some harrowing statistics. There are nearly 90 guns for every 100 people in this country.2(Gary Younger, "With Aurora, Another Mass Killing Shocks America. Why? The Nation, july 25, 2012) More than 30 people are shot and murdered each day, half of them are between the ages of 18 and 35. In Philadelphia, on the average, at least one person has been murdered every day over the last 25 years — and more than three-quarters of them have been killed with a gun.3(Guncrisis.org)

But in my search, something happened – something moved me, challenged me, even changed me – that was learning about – understanding --the interconnection of gun violence and inequality. The way in which these two toxic aspects of our society (easy access of guns and vast economic and racial inequalities) co-mingle, creating a society that ignores, devalues, and abandons poor and minority communities.

One article, a commentary by Gary Younger in The Nation, written in the aftermath of the Aurora shootings was particularly enlightening and instructive. Younger critiques the culture of “shock” in relationship to gun violence in America, saying that while violence like the massacre in Aurora is abhorrent, it is not at all shocking or random. Violence and death due to guns is part of the fabric of our country – it happens all the time, every day, it’s just that we don’t necessarily hear about it.

Younger notes that the night after the Aurora shooting, twenty two people were shot, three fatally, in Chicago. The Philadelphia organization GunCrisis, which through photos and journalism, brings to light the seemingly ceaseless violence in our city, noted that in the four weeks after Aurora, there were more than 115 victims of gun violence in Philadelphia– and there were more than 140 shootings in the city of brotherly love in the month of August alone.

Younger debunks the notion that guns and gun access is the only thing responsible for the violence of our society. He points out there are other countries with a high number of gun ownership --countries like Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland-- that do not have a high number of gun murders. Younger writes, “What links America’s high concentration of guns and relatively high level of gun deaths are the country’s high levels of inequality, segregation and poverty.”

In his article, Younger says words that sting with painful truth: “There are places in America where you are supposed to be safe—shopping malls, suburban schools, cinemas – and there are places where people are expected to be vulnerable: poor black and Latino neighborhoods. The possibility of arbitrary death…is just understood as the price you pay for being black or Latino in America.”

The experience of reading this and really taking it in – was like having a loud, piercing tekiah gedola sounded right in my ear.

Here I was in disbelief about a movie theatre shooting—which of course was terrible and heinous —but I didn’t know about those crimes that happened in my own city, not to mention other cities, in the days and weeks following. One of the reasons I decided to live and raise a family in the city is so that I specifically wouldn’t be sheltered from these truths -- How could I so easily tune out and keep segmented the realities that are so close to me – literally, just a few blocks away from where I live, shop, walk, pray?

Admittedly, the reality of violence and its pervasiveness in our city and the country is not “new information.” I do live in Philadelphia after all, the most violent city in the country. I even had direct exposure to some of what goes on every day through pastoral work at The Hospital of University of Pennsylvania which I did after graduation from rabbinical school. During the monthly overnight visits, I saw teenagers coming in with bullet wounds. I was there with families who were arrived to learn that their son or brother or father had been shot and was going into emergency surgery which may or may not save them. And since then, from the safety of my own home on 45th Street, I have heard noises coming from a close distance, and hoped upon hope that they were fireworks or a car backfiring but knowing that was likely not the case.

Yet, there is a difference between “knowing” – with my mind -- and “knowing” with my heart and soul. It is the difference between on the one hand, having some nebulous understanding of a national problem and on the other hand, being present with the magnitude of what’s happening day to day, being affected by the stories and by the tragedy of it all. It is letting my heart open to the pain of sons and daughters lost, of hope lost.

I want to share a story I heard over the last few weeks which was particular affecting. Marla Davis Bellamy, director of CeaseFire PA, tells a story that speaks to the brokenness of a society in which violence is normalized.4(Interview on radio Times, August 24, 2012) She describes the scene a case worker witnessed while hanging signs on a street in North Philly. It was a nice summer day, people were sitting on stoops and about 100 kids were playing on the playground. Suddenly, a young man took out a gun and opened fire. All the kids ducked. When the shooting stopped, the kids simply got up and started playing again—like nothing had happened at all. Not a single parent or guardian came out to take their child inside, not a single child ran home to take comfort or protection from an elder. No person reacted as if this was anything out of the ordinary. Can we imagine if such a thing happened at Clark Park?

Another story that touched me deeply was the story of Kianna Burns, a teenager who spoke in an interview on Radio Times about witnessing her father’s murder (which happened as he intervened to break up a fight involving her brother) and who herself was shot in the leg trying to escape the incident. Despite the gruesome details of the story—of which I will spare you – what hit home most was her sharing how she is afraid to leave her house because of the violence that surrounds her . She travels to and from school, still hoping to graduate, but other than that—she stays at home as much as possible. It is near impossible for me to imagine that a young person –who should be hanging out with her friends and doing what teenagers do – feels that she can only “make it out alive” is if she stays inside as much as possible.

Coming to a new understanding and opening my heart to these and other stories, -- I have woken up. And I am angry. I am angry that I live in a country in which people are dying every day, kids fear for their lives, and safety is elusive. I am ashamed and upset that I, an educated, progressive person who cares about inequality, can live in such blissful ignorance of my own privilege, that I can so easily ignore this problem. I am deeply pained that we live in a society where poverty is a predictor of not only your future success but of your future survival.

And at the risk of being hutzpadik, I think that all of us should also be angry --and pained and saddened by what goes on just a few blocks from where we are sitting and all over our city and our country. We should be angry that teenagers use guns because they feel they have no other way. We should be disturbed by the fact that our media mourns shootings that are deemed “out of the ordinary” but doesn’t take special note of the day after day murders that happen in poor and primarily African-American neighborhoods.

We should be saddened by the fact that children are “accustomed” to the sounds of gunshots and the rituals of funerals. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.”5 (Martin Luther kIng, "Where do we go form here," Speech to SCLC, August 16, 1967 

But this is not where the wake-up call ends. This is where call begins. Being angry or frustrated or pained or dissatisfied can be a good thing – but only if it spurs us into action, only if we choose to take those raw emotions and channel it for something that is better.

This is, in fact, what Maimonides teaches us about the shofar. He says that the piercing blast of the shofar call to us, beckoning: “Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! O you slumberers, awake from your slumber! Search your deeds and turn in Teshuvah….Look to your souls and better your ways and actions. “ The call of the shofar is actually twofold: the first call is to wake up: the second call is to turn our wakefulness into action. We are to look to our souls, to discern what it is that we can do, and to better our ways and actions.

In the spirit of this teaching and in the hopes that we can turn and better our actions, I want to offer some direction for how we might stay awake and engaged in the coming year and beyond.

It may sound simple, but in order to stay awake, we need to know what is going on in our city. If we do not educate ourselves and stay informed, it will be easy for the violence in our city to fade again into the distance.

Through this process of discernment and education, I learned about an invaluable resource for keeping me informed. GunCrisis.org, through photos and daily updates and analysis, documents the crisis of gun violence in Philadelphia, filling in the gaps in the media’s coverage of the problem. Using awareness as a tool, we can speak out and challenge the culture of our media which deems some events “tragic” while others not even “newsworthy”. We can let our voices be heard against both the proliferation of guns (especially illegal guns) in our society and about the interconnection of gun violence and inequality. When an incident happens around the country, we can name the truth that gun violence is not a “random event” but a crisis that threatens the lives of our young people and diminishes our future.

Being aware of the problem is an important step, being aware of solutions is even more vital. It behooves us to know about and to support people and organizations that are making a difference. Through this process, I have learned about organizations like CeaseFirePA, which aims to stem the tide of gun violence in Philly’s 22cd district, the most violent in the city, and to raise awareness of this issue on the city and state level. A month ago, I didn’t even know about this organization; now, I plan on giving my support financially and through participating in the advocacy work they do. Supporting those who are doing work in the field to seek peace and change communities is integral way we can stay awake and engaged on the issue. As our tradition teaches, giving tzedakah is not an act of charity – it is about using our resources to balance out the scales, to move us toward a more just (Tzedek) and equal.

Perhaps most importantly, we can also join with others to address the problems in our neighborhoods and communities. In particular, we can connect with Heeding God’s Call, a Philadelphia organization made up of churches, synagogues, and mosques, whose mission is “to inspire hope, raise voices, and take action to end gun violence.”6 (www.heedinggoodscall.org) After a spike in violence or a particular incident, members of Heeding God’s Call will go out to the spot in which the homicide took place and literally stand witness, in order to both humanize the losses that happen day after day and to draw media attention to these underreported crimes.

I did not know when I started to write and share my story that the High Holidays this year bookends International Peace Day, which is this coming Friday, September 21. In honor of this international day, Heeding God’s Call is holding a ‘Walk and Witness Against Gun Violence.’ There will be a gathering in this neighborhood of West/Southwest Philly and joining in prayer, song, and silence at Cedar Park – just two blocks from Calvary!—They will be marching to at least two of the sites of local shootings and lighting candles for all 242 murder victims that have taken place so far in 2012. I plan to be there – and I hope you will join me. While standing witness to those who died will be harrowing, I imagine seeing people join together across religious, racial, and economic lines will be heartening and inspiring.

I anticipate what some of you may be thinking: Rabbi Lauren, even these actions will not truly alleviate the crisis in our city and our nation. This problem is too complicated, too entrenched for us to really make an impact. I definitely understand this concern. And I feel that fatigue that comes when looking at problems that seem beyond what I can do to fix.

But, in the face of the enormity and intractability of injustice and inequality, I take comfort and inspiration from the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, who said: “Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? Our concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally; not only publicly, but also privately; not only occasionally, but regularly. What we need is the involvement of every one of us as individuals.”

As Heschel points to: it is not the task of someone else “over there” to change what needs to be change: it is our task. To remember that it is not someone else’s responsibility to care for our neighbor: it is our responsibility. To recognize that while we cannot necessarily complete the task, we are not free to abandon it.​7 (Pirkei Avot 2:21)

This year, when we hear the piercing blasts of the shofar:

Let us awaken out of our sleep! May we be able to fully listen, to be present with what is difficult and challenging in our city and in our world so that we can be true and faithful witnesses.

Let us look at our souls and turn in Teshuvah! Let us look inside and consider what each one of us can do to better our neighborhood, our city, our world. Let us turn toward the problem and not away from it.

Let us examine our deeds and better our ways! Let the shofar blast be a clarion call to action. May those actions, no matter how seemingly small, inspire us, our neighbors, and our community. May this Rosh HaShanah be a year of blessing, of equality, justice, and peace for all who dwell on earth.