While convening regional public safety forums throughout the diocese, Bishop Jon Bruno called upon Southland Episcopalians to learn about and to prevent violence by becoming catalysts for change.
“We as human beings can change the world,” Bruno told the 200 Episcopalians who attended the gatherings, which featured as guest speakers, legislators, law enforcement and public officials and community activists.
“It’s important we understand we have the power to touch other people’s lives and initiate their ministry to make things change around us,” Bruno said during his latest “Hands in Healing” initiative, which began in 2002 with a cross-country anti-violence youth pilgrimage. “Increasing gun safety “is a matter of public health,” Bruno said, building on a call to action voiced by Virginia Classick of the diocesan Program Group on Peace & Justice Ministries.
Catalysts for change
The Hands in Healing forums, held Aug. 10 in Los Angeles County; Aug. 17 and 24 in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties respectively; Oct. 5 in Orange County and Oct. 12 in San Bernardino, included discussions about the recent spate of mass shootings, bullying, domestic violence, homelessness and drugs, as well as planning for natural disasters. Specialized consultations are planned in Riverside County beginning in November.
“We want to inspire each and every one of you to go out and start a new ministry or participate in an existing one,” Bruno told about 75 participants at the first gathering, at St. Augustine-by-the-Sea Church in Santa Monica (see related story here).
“If we do nothing, nothing’s going to get done,” he said. “We need to act as catalysts for change.”
Preparing for when disaster strikes
Ventura police officer Cody Uebelhardt and Santa Barbara Deputy Robert Plastino told forums in those counties that having a plan in case of disaster is imperative. The first step, they said, is to become aware of your surroundings, whether you’re walking, at home or work; to have a basic idea of entrances and exits and what to do should you be accosted or face the threat of violence.
The Very Rev. Canon Michael Bamberger and Canon Bruce Linsenmayer, diocesan disaster preparedness coordinators, also advised participants to begin to develop congregational disaster readiness plans. (See related story in the Fall 2013 issue of The Episcopal News).
They suggested visiting Episcopal Relief and Development’s website to access resources there.
Gun violence — even in churches
U.S. Representative Lois Capps called upon participants at the Santa Barbara County forum to join “the fight to reduce gun violence and see that guns can be a part of our society in a safe way” because incidents of violence, and particularly gun violence, are on the rise nationally, locally and even in churches.
At St. Michael’s University Church in Isla Vista, Capps, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, cited shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 27 died; at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, where 12 died and 58 people were injured; and in Tucson, Arizona, an incident in which her colleague Gabby Giffords was shot.
“We owe it to the victims and their families to think long and hard about our opportunities to consider what we can do to make our communities safer and less violent,” she told about 30 people who attended the Aug. 17 forum.
Efforts to shatter Washington’s gridlock are “going to have to come from congregations like those represented here, in such overwhelming numbers and powers and persuasions, it ceases to be a partisan issue,” she said.
“I’m telling you in a very practical way, we won’t be able to legislate, to create a national ability to do the things you would like us to do as long as there is that bottleneck,” she added.
On Oct. 5, Canon Mary Leigh Blek and Charles Blek said incidents of murder-suicide are on the rise in Orange County.
“We think of young gang members with guns, but a lot of guns are in the homes of white elderly men who … may have Alzheimers or dementia,” Mary Leigh Blek said. “We don’t have any compunction about taking Grandpa’s car keys away when we think he’s a danger to himself or others but we don’t think, ‘what about his gun?’”
Similarly, the “Asking Saves Kids” or ASK campaign teaches parents how to be proactive when their children play at neighbors’ homes, she said. “We ask if there’s a pool or if there are dogs in the house, but how many of us have asked if there’s a gun in the home and if so, how is it stored? This is a way to encourage people to ask that important question.”
The Bleks have worked tirelessly to promote “responsible gun policy” since their son Matthew was shot and killed in 1994. “We came to this in a very unfortunate way,” Charles Blek told the forum at St. George’s Church in Laguna Hills, where Matthew had attended Sunday school and youth activities. He was killed in New York City, where he was working a summer job.
“That was 19 years ago, and it’s still right there,” he said. Three youths were convicted in the slaying.
“The district attorney said, ‘The family will have closure now.’ No. We will try to heal. We will try to make things happen so other families do not walk in our shoes, but we do not have closure,” he said.
The couple — who helped organize the Million Mom March in 2000, which drew about 850,000 people to Washington D.C. to emphasize the impact of violence on their lives — also worked with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Recently, they had pressed Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a package of gun control laws that passed the California state legislature, key pieces of which Brown vetoed.
Violent attacks are also on the rise in churches, according to Santa Barbara Sheriff Lt. Robert Plastino. He cited a Christianity Today article, comparing 115 attacks in U.S. churches in 2012 to just ten a decade earlier.
“That’s a tremendous increase,” said Plastino, adding that congregations must educate themselves on how to respond in the event of such an emergency and to engage law enforcement agencies as a resource.
Partnering to stop all kinds of violence
Paying attention to people and places, and partnering with local community groups and law enforcement agencies can help circumvent violence, said forum speakers in Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.
The ADAPT campaign in Orange County encourages families to “take the pledge” to pay attention to each other and to have honest conversations and clear rules regarding alcohol and drug abuse, said Sheriff Sandra Hutchens at the forum in Laguna Hills.
“We see kids addicted to oxycontin and hydrocodone and when they can no longer get it from their friends’ medicine cabinets, they try to buy it on the streets,” Hutchens said. “But it’s very expensive. They can’t afford it, so they go to heroin, because heroin is cheap and gives them the same effect. We have a resurgence of heroin use in our country that crosses the entire economic spectrum.”
She encouraged participants to be aware of what’s happening in their communities, and if they observe something suspicious to “call us” — much like the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign of the Department of Homeland Security.
“We need you to tell us,” she said. As odd as it sounds, she said, in one neighborhood people observed a man selling drugs from his car “but they didn’t want to call and ‘bother’ us.”
Noticing bruises and other signs of physical assault is a major step in becoming aware of victims of domestic violence and bullying, according to Kristi Martin, an outreach specialist with Interface Children and Family Services (ICFS) of Ventura County.
Listening to victims is equally important, should they confide in you, she said. “It’s so important just to listen and believe, and to try to provide resources for them,” such as ICFS, she said. The nonprofit agency offers a range of services for those affected by domestic violence, sexual and other abuse.
Yearly about 3.3 million U.S. children witness domestic violence, and that typically affects their brain development, which affects their ability to learn. Also, Martin said, “studies show that boys who’ve grown up in these homes are twice as likely to become abusers and girls are six and a half times as like to be victims of child sexual abuse.”
Several times yearly, the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department holds “radKIDS” personal empowerment and safety education classes for children aged 5 to 12, according to Captain Steven Dorsey, speaking at the San Bernardino forum.
radKIDS teaches children to develop strategies and tactics to respond to bullying and child predators. The two-week course’s curriculum components include safety at home, at school and in vehicles, as well as personal safety and realistic physical defense skills to protect against abduction.
“All radKids understand that no one has the right to hurt you, because you are special,” Dorsey told the gathering.
Mental health services
Deputies have also partnered with county behavioral health workers for Project Hope, which provides housing services and case management to those who are mentally ill or suffering because of substance abuse, he said.
“They go out and actively contact homeless people to let them know about services offered to them,” Dorsey said. “We’ve decriminalized being homeless. This is a long-term investment to help people get back into the system where they can be productive citizens.”
Additional collaborative efforts are also underway with other agencies, to help offer dental services, longer-term living, food, clothing and even job placement. “We’re training deputies how to relate to the neighborhood,” said Dorsey, who urged participants to become familiar with their local community resources and to partner with law enforcement agencies. “It’s a different thinking, and theory.”
Homelessness is violence, too
Marilyn Kraft of the Central City Lutheran Mission (CCLM) told a gathering at St. John’s Church in San Bernardino that the agency “takes 30 calls a day asking for food.”
Partnering with St. John’s and other churches to offer a food pantry, they also work to empower people.
“But we can’t talk about educating people and giving them skills if they don’t know where tomorrow’s meal is coming from — or today’s,” Kraft said. CCLM offers weekday hot meals, as well as a cold-weather shelter, primary care clinic, afterschool programs, housing for those living with HIV and re-entry services for ex-offenders.
“Homeless people in general are more likely to be victims of crime,” she said. “It’s a very vulnerable state to be out there on the street.”
One way to alleviate the isolation of the homeless is just to talk to homeless people, as long as it feels safe, she said.
Another is to become knowledgeable about resources that might help them, like calling 211 for information. Another is to offer protein bars or peanut butter to them, she said, if in giving cash “you fear you’re supporting their drug habit or something else that may not be appropriate.”
Community Safety Resources
Disaster Preparedness Planning
• Call 211 in most areas for a wide range of community resources.
• Episcopal Relief & Development
Diocesan Disaster Preparedness Coordinators
• The Rev. Canon Michael Bamberger and Canon Bruce Linsenmayer
626.825.2232 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Domestic & Relationship Violence
• Interface Children & Family Services, Ventura County
• ADAPT – Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Team
• Asking Saves Kids (ASK) Program
• Central City Lutheran Mission, San Bernardino