08/05/2013 10:14 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Safe Streets, Safe Sanctuaries


Although the two of us come from different cultural backgrounds and traditions, we enjoy the same unique role in society: it's our privilege as religious leaders to be there at the first moments of life as well as at the end, marking significant milestones and helping our communities carry their burdens along the way. Whether mainline Protestant or Sikh, the concerns of the people we serve are substantially the same. And so it was only natural that worshiping communities across the country were shaken a year ago this week, regardless of their tradition, when a gunman opened fire at the Oak Creek, Wisc., gurdwara and killed six individuals at prayer.

What happened at Oak Creek matters to us first, as faith leaders, because we recognize a deep responsibility to act as stewards of community. The wellbeing and safety of those who entrust their lives' most sacred moments to our houses of worship is a serious concern. But what happened at Oak Creek matters most of all because people of faith are called to be bearers of peace. For both Sikhs and Christians, peace means something broader than the absence of war. Christians are called to active struggle in the service of love and justice. Sikhs too are called to altruism (Vand Chhakna) and service (Seva) for the greater good. We understand that peace can arise from, and can lead to, moments of contentious debate. But violence is always antithetical to peace, and we know that the proliferation of guns in our country can only lead to more violence.

Our traditions teach us that God's children can be found everywhere. Their lives are no less precious than those in our own communities, and we are called to help lighten their burdens as well. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, for instance, the 500,000 American Sikhs and nearly three million American Muslims have had to contend with more than a decade of unwarranted suspicion borne from ignorance in the wider population, sometimes with violent results. The Oak Creek shooting testifies to the cost of such fear and, especially, to the need for people of faith to work together to effect positive change regarding violence. We particularly need to apply our traditions, theologies, and personal faith to bear on the question of gun violence, which right now means advocating for life-saving universal background checks for gun purchasers.

After all, the fact is that shootings rarely happen on the battlefield. They happen in our schools, in our stores, and on our streets -- and Oak Creek has made clear that the shootings happen in what should be our sanctuaries as well. The way to make them safer for our faith communities, and indeed all Americans, is not to hide within our holy places but to gather within them. By convening, and by joining forces with others, we have a chance to do justice to the lives of BhaiSeeta Singh, BhaiParkash Singh, BhaiRanjit Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Subegh Singh, and ParmjitKaur Toor. None of us will be safe until all of us are safe, no matter what faith we profess, and that principal is as dear to the founders of our nation as any amendment in the Bill of Rights.

Because of the special privilege we share as stewards of community, America's religious leadership has the capacity to reach across political lines in a way that police chiefs, academic experts -- and even concerned citizens acting alone -- cannot. We have to look across the people in our faith communities and ask what might make their lives safer. Should our concern be limited to those who pray with us, or does it include lives lived outside our doors as well? One year after Oak Creek, the answer is clear: "separation of Church and State" cannot mean silence from the "Church" side of the equation. To protect lives and care for spirits, faith leaders need to support legislative action against illegal guns. The victims of gun violence, our faiths, and our belief in America's promise demand no less.

The Very Rev. Gary Hall is tenth dean of Washington National Cathedral. Dr. Rajwant Singh is Chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education.