For the families and friends of those killed a year ago on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, and for those injured in countless other ways in the massacre, Valentine’s Day hearts will always be pierced, shattered, and sore wounded.
In print and on the airwaves, the debate about preventing more acts of mass violence, especially against children, sounds as circular as ever, the same tiresome either-or. Is it a mental health or a gun issue?
Of course, it’s both. I commend you to Bishops United Against Gun Violence (bishopsagainstgun violence.org) for a list of good-sense gun safety measures that enjoy the support of gun owners and non-owners alike. When it comes to mental illness, it’s long past time for our country to face up to its responsibility to care for all who are sick and at risk. Our colleagues at Prism Restorative Justice will tell you that jails and prisons are stuffed with people who should be in the hospital or at home with their families while receiving the treatment they need and deserve.
As citizens, we may advocate for gun and mental health reform. But as church people, we have even more work to do. Our specialty is creating communities of connection and care where none is alone, neglected, marginalized, or overlooked. Where difference is no barrier to belonging. Where love and secure familial connection are more important than insisting on our own way. Where you always notice if someone is missing. Self-isolating. Not in their usual pew or friendly frame of mind. When you see it, and you know you’re supposed to call and check.
It’s not always like that. Many of us can do better. But one thing’s for sure. If synagogues, churches, temples, and mosques don’t behave this way, no one else will in our secularizing, atomized culture. Name another institution that fosters this kind of enduring connection.
But most of our congregations are oases of belonging in deserts of social polarization and quiet desperation. If you love your church, think of having to do without it. That’s how many of our neighbors are living. Many have their families and their work and youth sports leagues. But think about those who don’t, and especially those who are angry, cut off, or mentally ill. Who notices? Who cares? Who will listen and speak and love and act before they pick up a gun and head for a school?
By virtue of Jesus Christ’s Great Commission, the comfort of our churches isn’t to be hoarded or preserved for its own sake or ours but extended like the arms of Christ into the desert places around us. Our ministry may be in the streets demanding justice for those being scapegoated by politicians, or chatting in a nursing home with someone whose family has stopped visiting. We may have a passion for immigration reform, addiction treatment, rehabilitative justice, or addressing food and housing insecurity. We may worry about at-risk youth or aging parents with no one at home to care for them while others in the family work long hours to pay dizzying mortgages and rents.
I can’t tell you what your neighborhood needs from Jesus Christ — so as our capital campaign gets underway, please be prepared to tell us when we ask. Your answer may plant the seed of sustainability for your church while pointing the way along new avenues of mission and ministry. When we listen to our neighbors, we learn, empathize, and love. When we love, we become responsible and accountable. This is our eternal gospel invitation. Jesus is our valentine, and so we are creation’s.
–The Rt. Rev. John Harvey Taylor is seventh bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.