More Than “Thoughts and Prayers”

One week ago we commemorated the first anniversary of the school shooting incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. in Parkland, Florida.  Seventeen students at the school were shot and killed on Feb. 14, 2018.

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(Photo courtesy of Kathy Broyard, Florida Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Network)

This April will mark twenty years ago since 15 students were killed at Columbine H.S. in Littleton, Colorado in 1999.  Before Columbine, school violence was limited to fights, knife stabbings, and a small number of firearms deaths.  My book on School Crime and Juvenile Justice (1998) had no discussion of school shootings with multiple victims until the 2nd edition came out in 2007.  In the 20 years since its publication more than 325 students between 5 and 18 years of age have been killed in schools.  (Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, School-Associated Violent Deaths.)

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I’m not the first person who’s noted the shocking prevalence of mass shootings in U.S. schools and our failure to pass laws and institute policies to reduce the tragic incidents. Yes, our “thoughts and prayers” are with the families and friends of the victims of school violence.  …but can’t we do more?

Certainly we can do more to reduce gun violence.  But doing background checks and placing restrictions on purchases and ownership of firearms in the U.S. has proven to be a challenge for our lawmakers.  Despite the public support for such measures, lawmakers are reluctant to risk political careers on this difficult issue.  Laws and policies to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of those who might turn them against their own citizens and neighbors has so far evaded us.

Some positive steps are being taken to address what most Americans agree is a national problem.  Church denominations and faith-based organizations are among those addressing the problem.  The Christian Century magazine in 2016 published a series of essays on America’s gun problem.  The publisher of the bi-monthly periodical has since made the collection of articles available for freeThe compilation of five articles addressing gun ownership, the Second Amendment, and America’s long history with guns is intended as a Conversation Guide to get us talking about the problem.

The Presbyterian Church is addressing the problem through educational resources, documentary films, and church-wide initiatives from the national office to individual churches and congregations.  Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has turned its attention from a primary focus on assisting victims of floods and hurricanes to the effects of gun violence.  Unlike weather-related disasters, gun violence can be prevented.

David Barnhart is an award-winning director and producer of several films documenting American problems (immigration, clean water, school violence and more).  His films feature in-depth interviews with people in communities that have faced disasters and human suffering.  Trigger” is a documentary film that examines the disastrous effects of gun violence in America through the eyes and voices of those who have been personally touched by it.

Can we solve the problem of gun violence by sponsoring film viewings and discussion groups around the country?  No.  But it’s a start.  Americans don’t hesitate to tackle problems involving life and death.  Why are gun deaths the exception?  The addition of statistics on “school-associated violent deaths” by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicates the importance of this problem.  News of another mass shooting is the first to hit our television screens, all the way to the Oval Office in the White House, where former President Obama expressed his frustration.

The online “PC-USA News” this week featured recognition of the first anniversary of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. in Parkland, Florida.  Reading it brought my mind to thoughts and prayers for the families and friends of the victims of that tragedy.  But it also is a reminder that working together as responsible citizens we can do more than thoughts and prayers.  We can work together to end gun violence.

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Center for Disease Control and Prevention School-associated Deaths

“Trigger” – a film by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

Movie trailer for “Trigger”

The Christian Century: “Can We Talk About Guns?

“A Man of God on Patrol”

“Life is what happens when you had other plans.” Not sure to whom that statement is attributed, but it surely applies and is most notable when life-changing events occur.  My son-in-law died just over a week ago.  Officer Jerry Whitson was the kind of man every father would wish for his daughter.  Kind, loving, attentive, open, communicative, and always thinking of and doing for others before himself.

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Jerry battled cancer for more than a year until it finally got the best of him.  He died on January 20th after 57 years of a life well lived.  I grieve with my daughter, grand-children, and Jerry’s family and friends at his premature passing, but we also joined in a celebration of his life.  This man knew that he was going to the “promised land,” words made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just over 50 years ago in one of his memorable speeches.

In his 30 years of service in the San Antonio Police Department, Officer Jerry Whitson was the finest example of “a man of God on patrol.”  He saw his role as more than “just a job.”  This was a “calling”—a “call to justice.”  Jerry exemplified the standards of the first public law enforcement officials, about which I wrote in a previous blog (see British “Bobbies” and American Police).

It is so often true that we don’t know how many lives were blessed and touched by someone until after their death.  This was true for Jerry Whitson.  So many persons attended the visitation the evening before his funeral that my daughter greeted persons who had been touched by Jerry’s life for nearly 3 hours, as the line extended up the long aisle of the spacious funeral home chapel.  Jerry’s fellow patrol officers stood solemnly beside his open casket the whole time, doing a moving “changing of the guard” with an honorary salute every 15 minutes.  Their response to my thanks and commendation for taking the time to do this was simply “Jerry woulda done it for me!”

The same sentiment and tribute to this departed brother patrolman was displayed the next day following Jerry’s funeral—appropriately termed “A Celebration of Life” in loving memory of Jerry Whitson.  More than a dozen motorcycle patrolmen riding two abreast led the 2-3 mile-long motorcade for the one-hour-plus ride to Jerry’s final resting place in the Texas Hill Country.  Officer Jerry Whitson, who had been selected to provide police patrol in Washington, DC during the Inauguration of President Barak Obama was now honored with one of his own.

CycleOffcrsCmtry          I miss Jerry.  I grieve for my daughter and grand-children who lost a great husband and father too soon in life.  But we celebrate the life of this great “man of God on patrol.”

TagsJerry Whitson Obituary  https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/universal-city-tx/jerry-whitson-8133956

Blog 28- British “Bobbies” and American Police