Healing the Community

I was relaxing on the couch last Sunday afternoon when a friend sent me a link to a news story about a Texas pastor killed in a church shooting. It was tragic to hear about Rev. Mark Allen McWilliams, but I admittedly found my ability to show compassion hampered. The article revealed that he had been shot with his own gun after the suspect disarmed him. On this issue I am a strange mixture, I grew up around firearms and generally am comfortable with them; however, I also generally disagree with the idea of people being armed within a church (in part because of the potential for these scenarios). I did and do grieve for Rev. McWilliams’ family, but part of me wanted to ask, “Why bring a gun to church?” I have participated in several active shooter trainings and listening to the police officers speak I recognized the the potential for such scenarios and have expected to read this story for some time. And so, on Sunday my compassion was hindered, part of me wanted to say, “I was right”, and look down on Rev. McWilliams. Thankfully that side was a very small part and was overcome by the desire to pray for the situation.

I say “thankfully” because Monday evening I received a phone call of a shooting in my neighborhood. I live in a quiet rural subdivision; the kind of place where we rarely see a sheriff’s deputy, and never see one for anything serious. Monday evening I was confronted with the reality of violence near me and the further reality that the shooter was at large. It was a blessing that the situation was resolved very rapidly– though with tragic consequences. But my home space had been violated, and my first reaction was to look for a firearm. I do not like confessing that fact, but it is essential. I told my wife after the situation had been resolved, “I did not feel comfortable not having a gun, and I did not feel comfortable having a gun.” What I recognized in that short space of time was that I felt vulnerable to violence, knowing that someone was near my house who had just shot another person. I further recognized that holding a firearm made me feel like I was inviting violence. Lest anyone think I am uncomfortable around firearms, not only did I grow up around them, I hunt and regularly target practice, generally I am comfortable with a firearm. This was different; I knew that if that gun was used, or even drawn, my life and the lives of my family were forever changed.

I remember talking with an older (and wiser) friend on the police force. We were talking about the transition from revolvers to semi-automatic handguns as carry weapons. He said to me that he did not ever want to be in a situation where he needed more than the six rounds in a revolver. I think I now understand more of what he meant. This man walked into many dangerous and tense situations, but he never felt comfortable with the potential for violence at his side. I think he understood the injury which would be done to his soul by pulling the trigger.

I find the trouble with much of the normal national conversation around firearms is that few people recognize the discomfort which became so real to me Monday. The temptation is to assume good guys with guns end violence, or taking away guns will end violence. The truth is neither, when the violence entered my world I realized that whether or not I picked up the firearm, had that individual entered my house I would have been harmed by violence. Actually, I have been harmed by the act of violence near me– through the increased levels of fear and anxiety I feel. For the foreseeable future I will be on edge, remembering how quickly my life was thrown into disarray. I will remember the anxiety of trying to get my kids to play in the basement without hinting at why, combined with the awareness of the situation and the circling emergency vehicles with their lights flashing. Unexpected knocks at the door, seeing an unfamiliar vehicle in the neighborhood, or seeing someone run by my house could all send me into an alert mindset. Such a prolonged state of anxiety will be a drain on my mental and emotional health. All of this will make me less friendly toward my neighbors, and less likely to engage with people around me. And if I feel this way, I am sure others in the community do also. The only solution is to consciously decide to overcome the effects of the situation and actively engage with the neighborhood.

I regret that small part of me which did not show compassion for Rev. McWilliams. Not that I will now carry a weapon; I regret not fully considering the fear and anxiety which violent crime causes in our communities. I regret that I took a simplistic side in the debates on guns, that I played into the “have them everywhere” or “have them nowhere” falsity. The reality of “violence does not end violence” came home to me. No matter whether I had a gun or not, the harm of the violence is done– the fear, distrust, and anxiety in my community have already increased. I am not so naive as to suggest that the debate on ending violent crime in this country does not include a debate on firearms. However, we need to recognize the violence in our communities is where we need to focus, healing these wounds is not a matter of taking away or bringing in firearms. Healing the wounds of communities impacted by violence is a longer more difficult task. We cannot prevent violence, or its aftermath, by taking away firearms, nor can we prevent violence by arming people. We prevent violence by introducing love into the void where fear and anxiety dwell.

Debating about guns is a debate on how to respond the moment violence happens, not about how to heal from and end violence. We need to begin discussions on how to heal communities stuck in the aftermath of violence. How do we bring long-term healing to these communities and help foster the growth which will eliminate violence? If we are to grow and truly see and end to violence these are questions we must ask.

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