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Stark images coupled with prayers during Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath

The Rev. Cynthia Black leads prayers during the Gun Violence Sabbath
Nina Nicholson, Director of Communications

From eye-catching public signs to a haunting display of empty shoes, congregations in the Diocese of Newark found creative ways to join over a thousand other houses of worship across the country in observing Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath, March 13-16, 2014.

Organized by Washington National Cathedral and Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, a coalition of 50 national denominations and faith-based organizations, the observance was intended to remember those who have lost their lives to gun violence, pray for those whose lives have been forever changed because of the loss of a loved one, and continue the discussion on how communities of faith can work together to help reduce gun violence.

At St. Mary’s Church in Belvidere, the Rev. Laurie Matarazzo, Priest-in-Charge, collected shoes from the church’s Thrift Shop and placed them strategically around the sanctuary to represent lives lost to gun violence. A child’s soccer shoes sat on the steps leading to the altar, a pair of blue satin high heels stood at the foot of the lectern, and a pair of work shoes seemed carelessly left in the aisle.

The empty shoes elicited different reactions. “I found myself focusing on the little girls’ sneakers and the cleats and I knew that one of those pairs of shoes could belong to one of my kids,” Warden Annie Pike said. Across the aisle, Sarah Grub was thinking “of how so many are taken from us. Each set of shoes has an important story to tell.”

Another member said simply, “When I first walked into church and saw the shoes they seemed lonely, sitting there. Later, after I heard what they stood for, the loneliness was almost unbearable.”

St. Mary's Belvidere shoes
Empty shoes representing lives lost to gun violence. JANE PRIMERANO PHOTO

In her sermon, Matarazzo said “It is important for us to witness, this day, to the harm we do ourselves and others through the use of guns. It is important for us to bring into our holy space evidence of the unholy.”

Having heard the words of Psalm 121 – “The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; it is he who shall keep you safe” – the congregation engaged in small group discussion of the question, “Where does our faith in Jesus Christ place us, push us, lead us as we confront violence of any kind in our lives?”

Congregants were encouraged to find their own ways of combating gun violence, from writing senators and congressmen to teaching children responsible gun use, and, ultimately promoting peace in all human encounters.

One member shared a broader perspective: “As I looked at the shoes I couldn't help think of the small violences we encounter throughout our days; some perhaps even perpetrated by ourselves. There are faces that fill those shoes and we pass them every day. God places them in our path and gives us opportunity for small kindnesses.”

At the conclusion of the 10:30 service at Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, worshippers processed outside to a large plywood cut-out of a handgun with the word “No” standing on the church lawn, for prayers, a moment of silence, and a tolling of the church bell.

Created the Rev. Cynthia Black, Rector, and the Rev. Dave Jones, Assistant for Youth and Family Ministry, the gun cut-out was painted with chalkboard paint so that people could write their own thoughts about gun violence. Some of the chalked comments included: “All it takes is one person to change,” “Guns are like drugs say no,” “Stop the war.”

“It’s appalling to me to think about the number of people who have lost their lives because of gun violence, just since the tragedy at Newtown, Connecticut – over 30,000 human beings in a little over a year,” said Black. “For me, this is one of those issues that simply can’t be ignored. It’s not going to go away.”

Noting that the gun cut-out will be left up for a while after the official observance, Black added, “We are using it as part of our ‘Taking it to the streets’ campaign for 2014, where we are trying to use the strip of land in front of the parish hall as much as we can to share Redeemer’s message of radical hospitality and inclusivity.”

Other congregations, including Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Montvale/Towaco, Church of the Good Shepherd in Fort Lee and Church of the Atonement in Tenafly addressed issues of gun violence in their sermons and prayers. At St. Peter's Church in Mountain Lakes, the youth group painted a banner which was displayed on the front of the church.

St. Peter's Mountain Lakes sign
The banner painted by the youth at St. Peters, Mountain Lakes. PHOTO COURTESY THE REV. ADELE HATFIELD

“At Atonement this day in March is celebrated annually as Legacy Sunday,” said the Rev. Lynne Weber, Rector, “and so reference was made in the homily to the importance of leaving the legacy of a more peaceful and just society to our children, and continuing our interfaith efforts in Bergen County to reduce gun and media violence.”

The Rev. Diane Riley, Deacon at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, reported that their sermon reflected on the issue of gun violence and the violence of the cross and promised that “following Jesus means moving out of the darkness and lighting dark places.”

To learn more about the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath, please visit