“There’s something evil in our society that we as Americans have to work to try and eradicate…I would like you to put my trauma center out of business. I really would. I would like to not be an expert on gunshots. Let's get rid of this. This is not America.” – Dr. Janis Orlowski, MedStar Hospital, after treating gunshot victims of the Navy Yard massacre
At only 24 years old Timothy Dawkins was already well respected in his hometown of Washington, D.C. as a young leader and youth organizer wise for his years. His colleague Trayon White, a District of Columbia State Board of Education member, described him to a reporter this way: “Tim was just very different. You're talking about a young man who went to seminary school when he was 21. Someone who got married when he was 21. . . He was an old soul; a soldier.”
Every July, clergy, seminarians, religious educators, young adult leaders, and other faith-based advocates for children gather at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF)’s Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee for the annual Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry. It provides five days of spiritual renewal, networking, organizing and movement building training to address the urgent needs of children and examine what faith and community institutions can and must do to meet them. Timothy was there this year as part of CDF’s Young Advocate Leadership Training (YALT®) program, which connects young leaders committed to protecting children, and to social justice from across the country. Our 2013 theme was “Beating Swords Into Plowshares: Ending the Violence of Guns and Child Poverty,” based on a biblical passage from the Hebrew prophet Micah: “[God] shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
For Timothy the training to end the violence of guns and child poverty was deeply relevant: he was an activist in one of the District of Columbia’s poorest and most violence-stricken neighborhoods and he had already dedicated his life to answering the call to people of faith to combat violence and make a difference. In his spare time he could be found studying in the neighborhood library emulating role models like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sadly, just a few weeks after Timothy attended our training, he was shot and killed walking in his Southeast D.C. neighborhood at 6:30 on a summer evening.
Police quickly suspected the gunfire was meant for someone else and not the unarmed seminary student known in the neighborhood as a peacemaker. But what difference does that make? His friend Trayon White said, “Unfortunately he was a victim of ignorance. . . He was truly an example for our young people, and we need more examples, especially Black men, standing in the gap, because we’re lost out here.” Timothy left behind a wife and a two-year-old son. He also left a neighborhood and community that are richer because of his dedication and presence but also much poorer because of his senseless death. And he left a city and nation that have yet to stand up to the scourge of gun violence that kills or injures a child or teen every half hour and has killed more people in America in our unremitting civil war fueled by guns than all the declared wars against external enemies in our history.
Just this week—extremely personal to all of us at CDF because a beloved colleague was among those in lockdown in the Navy Yard’s tragedy—a man with mental illness wielding a sawed-off shotgun killed 12 people and injured eight before being killed himself in our nation’s capital. And today opened with news of a mass shooting attack at a pick-up basketball game at a Chicago park that injured 13 people including a three-year-old boy who was left in critical condition.
What is it going to take for us to stand up and say enough to this internal gun war of American against American? What is it going to take to create a mental health system that prevents such tragedies from happening over and over? What is it going to take for us to pass and enforce adequate gun safety laws? What is it going to take to love and protect human life, especially children more than guns? Is the doctor right that this is not America? Or is she calling for the America we must create together with urgency and persistence?