When I was a child, I was one of several children who made up the children’s ensemble for a local theatre production about the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I still vividly remember one scene from that play. The scene took place in a Sunday school classroom. Each child stood one by one to recite a bible verse. We were all so sweet, cute and innocent – the girls wore our cutest frilly dresses and the boys wore little suits and ties. The punch line of the scene came when the smallest child among us stood and loudly proclaimed, “Jesus wept!” That was it – his entire verse. His verse always invoked joy-filled amused laughter from the audience. Our participation in the scene ended when we skipped off the stage holding hands to head downstairs after our Sunday school teacher promised us cookies. The song “Jesus Loves the Little Children” played in the background as we exited.
A few seconds after our departure from the stage, a loud boom would fill the theatre. The sound was always followed by pronounced, sharp gasps from the audience. Then deafening silence. And finally, statements of sorrow and disbelief. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned we were recreating the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that claimed the lives of four sweet, cute and innocent girls.
Fast-forward to 2015. 52 years later.
We find ourselves in the aftermath of another attack on an African American church. The recent shooting during a Wednesday night prayer meeting at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC claimed the lives of nine innocent people. Nine people who graciously welcomed a stranger into their sacred place of peace and refuge for prayer. Nine people who then watched the same stranger pull out a gun before opening fire on them. That stranger was Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old white man whose attack was fueled by the same type of hatred that led to the 1963 bombing in Birmingham, AL.
My reaction after hearing about the shooting at Mother Emmanuel Church was similar to the reaction of the audience that witnessed our play many years ago – a sharp gasp of disbelief and sorrow followed by silence.
Silence because the attack was too scary, too personal, and the factors that led to it are multi-faceted and overwhelming. Luckily, similar to the 1963 bombing, the shocked silence caused by the attack has quickly dissipated and led many people to engage in useful commentary about topics like gun violence, gun control policies, social policies that contribute to inequities, educational curriculums that fail to present balanced and accurate depictions of history, media depictions of violence and disparate coverage of violent events and violent perpetrators across racial categories, and law enforcement criteria for “criminal profiling,” to name a few.
Faced with so many factors, one can easily feel overwhelmed by a sense of not knowing what to do or where to start. None of us can single-handedly solve all of these problems but we can each play a part.
Here at Banyan, we are proud of the work we’ve been doing with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help prevent violence. Since 2008, we’ve worked alongside the agency’s Division of Violence Prevention to develop interactive trainings and resources for practitioners who are committed to stopping violence before it starts. The VetoViolence website inspires hope, connects people and drives actions that have the potential to make violence prevention one of the biggest public health achievements of this decade. We hope that our work on VetoViolence is a meaningful piece of the larger puzzle and will help violence prevention practitioners break through the silence as they seek to create change for good.