RETHINK CHURCH continues as a recurring theme for United Methodists in 2011 as we think in new ways about the future of the church, its outreach and its goal to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I began this series in January with the theme of “Rethinking Advocacy: Supporting smoke-free workplaces.” Since then Indiana House Bill 1018 was voted out of the House of Representative and is now in the State Senate for debate. The only drawback was the exemptions of casinos, bars, private clubs and nursing homes that were amended to the bill. Advocates, including many United Methodists, hope that the Senate will restore most if not all these exemptions so that lawmakers will make a truly comprehensive smoke-free air law for all workers in Indiana. Gov. Daniels already said he would sign the bill if it were passed.

This month, I focus on violence in society and what we, as United Methodists, can and need to do to help society lessen the violence we see daily in the news.

Before we could break many of our New Year’s resolutions last month, Jared Loughner opened fire on a crowd in Arizona, killing six people (including a nine-year-old girl) and injuring 13 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, whom Americans continue to pray for as she experiences a remarkable recovery. Loughner passed a background check before purchasing the Glock 19 he used in his solo shooting rampage. He shot 30 bullets from a magazine before he was overpowered when he re-loaded. His gun and its contents were legal. He has since been charged with murder and attempted assassination of a U.S. Congresswoman.

Prevent gun violence

Former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke, now president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, pointed out in a recent visit back to Fort Wayne, that since 1994, the country has gone down a path towards more open gun access. Helmke now hopes that President Obama will mention the need to ban large capacity ammunition magazines, tighten restrictions on who can legally purchase a gun and to require background checks for all sales.

But gun violence just didn’t happen in Arizona. Gun violence has been ever increasing in Indiana as well. During the past two decades, Lenore Johnson of Gary, Ind., has lost all four of her children to gun violence. Her 24-year-year-old son, DuShaun, was gunned down in 1993, after she sent him to the store to buy groceries. Four years later, her youngest son Edward was shot and killed. In 2003, her only daughter, Tasha, was killed during a robbery in a beauty shop where she was getting her hair done. And last August, her 39-year old son, Tony, was shot in the head and killed by an acquaintance.

Today, Johnson is semi-retired and remains close to her five grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Johnson says it is her faith that gives her peace as she slowly gains strength to fight against gun violence.

Even though Lenore Johnson’s story is an extreme example, she joins thousands of parents who have had to bury their children due to gun violence on our Hoosier streets. Such stories have become everyday news. Earlier this month, Evansville Police reported a man took a concealed loaded gun into the Central High School office asking for a student. Staff realized something was wrong. They summoned the police and a tragedy was prevented.

Finally, much of Indianapolis was in mourning this month and last over the death of Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer David Moore, age 29, who was shot and killed while making an arrest of a man who had been in and out of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the man who shot him was not helped and society was not protected. Records were not kept properly, procedures weren’t followed, and the shooter was released back to the streets, leading to Moore’s death.

Too many times, gun violence is perpetrated by people having emotional difficulties who are in some sense mentally ill. Guns and mental illness are a deadly duo and becoming too common.

Our role in prevention

Gun control is a touchy issue, but as people of faith, if we don’t challenge the status quo, violence will continue. Gun control advocacy is one way to lessen the chance of violence through public policy. If Loughner could have only loaded ten bullets per magazine, the odds are great that fewer people would have been killed or injured in Arizona. Multi-round ammunition clips are not manufactured for sport shooters. Their only purpose is deadly force against other people. In the hands of a mentally unstable individual, killings can become a sad reality.

Another way people of faith can lessen violence on the streets is by being on the streets. Such is the role the Rev. Charles Harrison has taken as senior pastor of Barnes United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. With the help of other United Methodist churches, Barnes provides Friday and Saturday night programs for neighborhood youth in the church’s community center, which includes a basketball court. On Saturday night, Barnes features worship especially for young adults and teens. Since the program began, crime and violence has gone down in that neighborhood.

Barnes doesn’t stop there. Harrison also is president of the Ten Point Coalition composed of predominately black churches and their pastors who reach out through a continuing dialogue with IMPD and the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office. The churches have become a catalyst for change to lessen violence in the inner city, like the violence that claimed Moore’s life.

The challenge for us all as United Methodists is to realize the actions of our faith begin when we leave the sanctuary and join life with the greater society. Literally at times we need to take our faith to the streets to make the streets safe for all residents. We constantly need to rethink our meaning of community to include our neighborhood and part of town.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, said, “the world is my parish.” This was his mandate to serve Jesus Christ, who traveled in and out of the villages and towns of Galilee healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, feeding the hungry and proclaiming the coming of God’s reign. He is still in our midst and He leads us as we follow Him in our communities.

Remember the words of Jesus when he called for peacemakers? “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great (Matthew 5:12).” Rethink community.

– Daniel R. Gangler

Guns and mental illness are a deadly duo...