"A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more."
It looks so much like every school I've walked through in America, including our partner school through St. Paul Community Baptist Church where I serve as Lead Pastor. It's funny, no matter how far you fly, when you get off the plane and enter a school you hear the same sounds, see some of the same sights from home. Ashen chalkboards. Squeaky laminate floors buffed until they shine plastically under the fluorescent bulbs. This German schoolhouse - worlds apart from Brooklyn - smells, looks and feels so much like the school housed just under our sanctuary.
Maybe that's why it takes my breath away for a moment when I close my eyes and painfully remember the one thing that all of Germany undoubtedly wishes this school didn't have in common with so many of the schools of its younger, Western neighbor: children massacred within its walls.
While in Winnenden, Germany last December as part of an envoy of religious and community leaders on a whirlwind tour - eventually the team would snake its way through Europe engaging in 19 meetings and events over 5 days in 7 cities across 4 countries - I didn't feel much like an official delegate at the moment. I felt much smaller, much more helpless. As I surveyed hallways that I know ran red with innocent children's blood just four years earlier, I was no longer a delegate but a father, a husband, and a pastor who had to make sense of this kind of senseless violence, both here in Germany and back home in East New York, Brooklyn.
When we first landed still hoping against hope to sit down with representatives of Beretta, Glock, and SIG Sauer to discuss the massive number of European firearms that turn up at American crime scenes, we knew it would be a hard trip. We had no delusions about a totally irenic exchange. After all, we were there to encourage billionaire gun merchants, among other things, to stop lobbying against gun restrictions in the U.S. and to invest more heavily in "microstamping" and other ballistics technology that make it easier for police to trace the perpetrators of gun-related crimes and even to prevent the unlawful use of handguns by anyone other than the registered owner.
Before arrival we had not received any positive replies to our numerous requests for meetings with these companies (unless of course you count the response from one company which conveniently directed us to its American lobbying arm). So when we got off the plane our itinerary was mostly "wait and pray." If that wasn't enough to produce some anxiety I was acutely aware, all of us were, that we were prodding at and possibly provoking something much bigger than ourselves. We were coming with facts and figures and even, in our minds, moral force; none of that erased the anxiety of knowing that we might be, quite literally, sitting down with the big guns.
Yet as doors opened and meetings were scheduled from the German Chancellery and the U.S. Embassy in Berlin to the site of the European Parliament in Strasbourg (though no meetings with weapons manufacturing executives were ever granted), something happened. As we attempted to speak for the tens of thousands of Americans who are gunned down each year in places like Newtown and Aurora and Chicago, we started to learn new names of new cities that had wept those same tears: Eppstein, Emsdetten, Cologne, Erfurt.
As we lifted our voices on behalf of America's fallen, we also began to hear a voice. The sounds of lamentation, weeping and great mourning for all of God's children across the world, of every color and religion and age.
And for me, I think I started to hear that voice crying for the first time in that eerily familiar school in Winnenden. As those parents of children lost to gun violence spoke to us and charged us to speak with and for them, I heard the voice behind their voices. I heard the voices of the parents of young boys and girls killed by stray bullets in my own city time and time again. I heard the voices of the more than 200 sons of East New York who think and play and grow in the Imagine Me Leadership Charter School right below my office, too many of whom have lost a friend or a relative to an illegally obtained gun...
Almost immediately after returning to the States I was asked a question that made my blood boil. "Why?" Why deal with something seemingly so political? Why focus so much energy on anything besides preaching the Gospel?
Whenever I get that question I think about that first Sunday, just a day after returning home from Europe, we experienced a different kind of altar call at St. Paul. In our tradition, altar calls are usually calls for those in the congregation who have not entered into a relationship with God to do so immediately. In that moment we beckon all who are willing to be reconciled to divinity through Jesus Christ do so. But in this particular moment, we made a different call. I asked for all who had been touched directly by gun violence to stand and make their way to the altar. Within seconds an army of more than 100 of the people God has called me to shepherd rose to their feet and filled the space between pastor and people to capacity, some with tears streaming down their cheeks. "What gospel is powerful enough for this people if it doesn't have anything to say to those tears?"
In that moment I could hear the voice crying again. I knew immediately that I must never stop speaking as long as the voice is crying on high.