It was Saturday, December 8th, 2012. Mark and Jackie were heading home with their three children, James, Natalie, and Daniel after choosing “the best Christmas tree ever” at a farm near their home in Connecticut. They decided to stop at a shopping plaza for treats. While Jackie and the kids headed to the market, Mark walked in the opposite direction to the hardware store. Within seconds, six year old Daniel was racing across the parking lot toward Mark yelling, “I’m going with Daddy!”
As Daniel fell into step beside his Dad, taking his hand, Mark asked, “Don’t you want to go with them to pick out treats? I’m just going to the hardware store.” Daniel looked up and said, “I came to comfort you. I don’t want you to be alone, Dad.”
Six days after that memorable weekend, Daniel, 19 other children and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Do you remember where you were when you first heard the news? After doing some Christmas shopping for my family, I got in my car, turned on NPR as I usually do – and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I sat in the parking lot listening to the story, overcome with emotion. What would it be like to be one of those parents? Surely, this tragedy would FINALLY wake up our country and we would create common sense gun laws. (How many of you thought so, too? Most people raise hands.)
That was TEN YEARS ago. TEN years. And semi-automatic rifles, like the one used to kill those children and adults, are still as available now in many parts of the country as they were then. In just the last two weeks 31 people have been killed, 67 people have been injured, and countless others have witnessed or lost loved ones due to mass shootings (of four people or more.)
What do you think the leading cause of death for children is in the U.S.? It’s no longer automobile accidents or cancer. Gun violence. This year is becoming the deadliest year for mass shootings on record. According to the Gun Violence Archive, the U.S. is averaging nearly two mass shootings per day; more than 600 so far this year.
The season of Advent is an invitation for us to wake up; to pay attention to the signs of the times and to signs of God’s presence in our midst.
One day last week I was looking at the news online and a feeling of dread overcame me. I had to stop reading. I just couldn’t take news of another shooting. With the flood of overwhelming stories we face on any given day, we can be tempted to shut down, withdraw, and try to escape with the latest tv comedy hit. We can bo go back to sleep. I confess that I have done this at times.
But, how Advent calls us to respond is different. Rather than step away from the discomfort we feel from all that is not right with this world, we are called to find a way to notice the light that is within even the darkest days; to take swords and turn them into plough shares; to take spears and turn them into pruning hooks. In other words, to take weapons of death and instead, cultivate life.
This is exactly what Daniel’s father, Mark, and others at Sandy Hook Promise have done. They show us how to live with hope even in the midst of the most unimaginable tragedy anyone could ever face.
Within 24 hours of the shooting, Lee Shull, who lived a block away from the shooter, and whose middle school aged daughters had attended Sandy Hook Elementary, invited a group of around a dozen friends to get together to cry, commiserate and support each other. That night, Lee said, “We need to do something.’’
From there, other groups formed. On January 14, 2013, only one month after the devastating tragedy, Mark Barden, Nicole Hockley, Bill Sherlach and others began Sandy Hook Promise. “Our intent,” they write, “is to honor all victims of gun violence by turning our tragedy into a moment of transformation.”
Today “the mission of Sandy Hook Promise is to educate and empower youth and adults to prevent violence in schools, homes, and communities. Through our proven, evidence-informed Know the Signs programs and sensible, bipartisan school and gun safety legislation, we teach young people and adults to recognize, intervene, and get help for individuals who may be socially isolated and/or at risk of hurting themselves or others.”
One of Sandy Hook’s signature initiatives, “Start with Hello” was inspired by six year old Daniel. Even as a little guy, he had a special gift for noticing people in need and reaching out to help them. Daniel was known to go out of his way to speak to a special needs child at school. He would say, “She can’t talk, but I know she can hear me.” When he saw someone sitting alone at lunch, he would join them.
According to a Clemson University study, most school shooters feel excluded and lack a sense of belonging. Experts call this extreme form of isolation social rejection. Lunchtime is often when students feel left out and alone. In 2015, inspired by 6 year old Daniel, Sandy Hook Promise partnered with Beyond Differences to promote its program, No One Eats Alone. Research shows that one way to prevent shootings before they happen is to reduce social isolation. Since it began, more than 8 million students and educators have participated.
As the 10th Anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings approach, I can’t imagine what it feels like for Mark Barden, Nicole Hockley, and Bill Sherlach and others who have devoted the last ten years of their lives to preventing gun violence to witness what has happened in just the last two weeks in this country. And I can’t help but wonder: what is our duty to support their persistent efforts?
Jesus warns, “If the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not allowed his house to be broken into.” We know what contributes to gun violence: including gender, poverty/race, and easy access to firearms. The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, but 40% of the world’s civilian-owned guns and ⅓ of all suicides by gun. America’s gun homicide rate is more than double the average for all countries.
Why do we as a nation remain asleep? Unprepared? Why are we seemingly willing to allow the status quo to continue?
Daniel Barden’s sister, Natalie, was only in the fifth grade when her brother was murdered. She said “I never wanted to think about gun violence again. I didn’t want to be constantly reminded about Daniel’s death. When Parkland happened, at first I didn’t even want to think about it. But I forced myself to get even more involved, caring less about the pain it would cause me. I felt like if I didn’t, then more people were going to die.”
Could it be that one reason our country has not come close to solving this problem isn’t only because of people who have their own political and economic interests served by it continuing, but because the rest keep going back to sleep? The rest of us have been unwilling to face our own discomfort and do something more?
What Natalie Barden understood after Parkland is exactly what Advent hope looks like: choosing to face the evils of the world, even when it causes pain, in order to be able to spare others of pain. Advent hope is choosing to face the evils of the world, while also looking for the presence of God’s light, trusting that it is there. Advent hope is choosing to walk towards our own personal pain, if it can help someone else. And Advent hope is choosing to walk towards pain, hand in hand with those who know the same pain and allies, like Daniel, who noticed someone by herself at lunch and chose to sit down next to her.
To live from authentic hope, we can not ignore the pain of the world. We can not escape it, avoid it, or pretend it doesn’t exist. Nor can we discount it, diminish it, or disregard it. Real hope grows in the cracks; as Leonard Cohen sings, “that’s where the light gets in.”
For ten years, TEN YEARS, through evidence-based educational initiatives, legislative action and more, the Sandy Hook Promise community has tried to get our country to wake up. Why? “Because (they say) each child, every human life, is filled with promise, and though we continue to be filled with unbearable pain we choose love, belief, and hope instead of anger.”
As we begin our Advent journey, how might you and I be called to pay attention to the signs of the times and to God’s presence in our midst? What is ours to do to stop the scourge of gun violence in our country? How are you and I called to live from hope? Amen.