The sound of the door lock sliding into place behind me turned the nerves in my hands and feet electric, like flashes of lightning signaling a coming storm.
It was a cold winter in Missouri, and a fresh blanket of snow covered the ground. Leftover chicken tortilla soup and cupcakes on the counter brought to mind my neighbor. Knowing Donnie had a difficult time maneuvering his cane over the ice following his multiple surgeries, I ladled soup into Tupperware and covered a few cupcakes with Saran Wrap to take next door. I called out a quick good-bye to my family before plunging into the dark and frigid night.
Donnie opened the door and welcomed me in, out of the weather. Thinking of the periodic, pleasant interchanges we’d had over the years in our shared driveway, I walked in. When the door closed behind me and he twisted the lock into place, I maintained a calm exterior while internally I felt alarm begin to creep beneath my skin like ants frantically dispersing when their orderly mound has been disrupted.
“I want to show you my house. Follow me.”
He wasn’t my leader and I did not want to follow, but my feet took steps as my mind tried not to imagine how this might all end.
The tour concluded in the living room, where metal foot-lockers lined the wall. Donnie leaned down and pulled the lid off one of the containers. What I saw hijacked my breath. There, stacked neatly like the spoons and forks in my kitchen drawer, were rows and rows of guns. Large guns and small guns, with boxes of ammunition filling in the gaps.
“The target is hate and senseless violence. . . . May we aim love into the fear and the hate.”
Fear began to gnaw and claw its way through my body, swallowing the hope that I would escape this home of my neighbor. How could I feel so trapped 20 feet from my front door, where my husband and family were going about their evening, unaware that I was locked in a room with a man I barely knew who was harboring an arsenal of guns?
I have never held a gun and don’t know how one compares to another, but I managed to fake interest as Donnie lifted several weapons from the foot-lockers to show me. As the possibilities of a future began to shrink in my mind, Donnie told me he was prepared no matter what happened on our street. He opened another bin, exposing more guns, as well as stacks of knives. Gathering an armful of knives, he leaned over and handed them to me.
“If something goes down over here, I’ve got your back. Thanks for the soup.”
Moments later, I gulped the suddenly precious air of freedom as I crossed the driveway. I walked the short distance back to the security of our front door, my arms laden with knives that were slicing away my sense of security, despite their cardboard encasements.
The newfound knowledge of my neighbor’s crates of guns may cause some to wonder if I decided at that moment to move. The flight instinct is strong within us, and when we feel threatened we want to escape. I live in what most people would consider a “safe” town. Could I move to a “safer” neighborhood, a “safer” state?
While it is true that Missouri has some of the loosest gun laws in the nation, it takes but one quick look at the news every few weeks to witness the truth that beneath this star spangled net of red, white and blue, we are trapped by hate and violence – and entitlement to our weapons.
I didn’t rent a U-Haul truck and change my mailing address. Where would I go? Do we really believe there are safer spaces in this country to take up residence? (And I am sensitive to all the notes of privilege inherent in that question coming from a white, middle class woman.) But the reality in America today is that no church, concert, mall, movie, grocery store or school is safe. Guns are marching unseen all around us.
It’s terrifying. Similar to the feeling I had when I was temporarily locked within the house of my neighbor, it can be tempting to submit to the waves of helplessness that crash over us.
“How did we arrive at this place and what is binding us to our current reality?”
I work as a pediatric hospital chaplain and recently completed active shooter training. Sitting in my cubicle watching video images of an armed man parading through a hospital forced me to imagine what would happen if he walked through the doors of my building. The hospital is a source of healing for the most vulnerable children in the area, many connected as patients to monitors and ventilators. Fleeing isn’t an option for these children; and how would those of us who work there manage to protect these vulnerable and fragile lives from an onslaught of bullets?
One of the hospital security guards told me recently that he has chosen to respond to increasing levels of gun violence in Kansas City by doing all he can to confine his activities to three places – work, home and church. I imagine deep down he realizes that those three places aren’t bullet-proof either.
How did we arrive at this place and what is binding us to our current reality? Is it a lack of background checks? Is it the guns themselves? Is mental illness involved? Is it automatic assault rifles manufactured for the sole purpose of killing people as quickly and efficiently as possible? Is it racism? Is it homophobia? Is it anti-Semitism? Is it hate? Is it fear?
An epidemic is devouring our country. We have become a boiling heat, slinging insults and blame across the dividing line of responsibility. It seems no one is listening; and as the arguments intensify, so does the gunfire exploding in the background, an acute reminder that we need to wake up and search for a cure before the noise of violence becomes a hum so normal it’s like the sound of a train that passes our home every night.
After numerous trips down the same route, the locomotive whistle and the rattling windows go unnoticed. If we don’t pay attention to the trajectory we are on, this train is likely to careen off the tracks and run us all down.
Since I didn’t take flight (and relocate), that left me with the option to fight. I could have purchased my own guns to “protect” myself. That’s the line of reasoning I have often heard, and while I resonate with the feeling of wanting to protect my family and believe that Donnie actually meant well and was hoping to be a protector of sorts, I just can’t fathom a street with trunks of guns tucked in every nook of the Craftsman and Victorian homes on my street. Nothing about that scenario makes me feel any safer.
David Hemenway, an expert on the public health impact of gun violence and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, reports: “Scientists who conduct research on gun violence overwhelmingly agree that firearms make society more dangerous.” The prevalence of guns is often explained as a necessary means to control or respond to the unthinkable. If someone opens fire during our child’s soccer game, at least one of us needs to have a gun to control or limit the violence.
This argument may make sense in theory, but according to Hemenway, “Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide.”
“Guns are marching unseen all around us.”
Last week, my fifth-grade son joined his classmates to sing at City Hall as part of a 9/11 Memorial Service. During the program, the color guard fired multiple times into the air. The sound of the gunshots made my body jump, as if I had just touched an electric cable that wasn’t grounded.
As the shots shattered the silence, tears scalded my eyes. Dozens of elementary-aged children surrounded me, and images of school shootings from the news and social media were the lenses of the moment. Guns do make their way into our schools and their bullets into the bodies of our children. It is tempting to collapse into the anxiety.
But, I can fight back. And, so can you. Whether you are a gun owner or not, you can join others to come together as a Christian community to acknowledge the triggers of hate that inflict violence, destruction and death.
If we inventory our lives, what metal crates are lining the walls of our minds that need to be discarded in the interest of another’s safety? Is there embedded racism lurking in your attic that causes you to tense up and grab your purse when a man of color passes you on the street? Is there a crate of homophobia hidden in the recesses of your basement that is loaded with judgment and hate? How does your fury at those who are proud NRA members or those who want to repeal the Second Amendment impact what you file away in your storage bins as ammunition?
The target is not our human sisters and brothers, each of whom bears the image of God. The target is hate and senseless violence.
Together, as a faith community, may we drop our weapons of destruction and aim love into the fear and the hate. Like the stubbornness of a dandelion, laden with seeds of new life forging her way through cracked cement, a new way of being neighbor will begin to emerge.