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Messenger: St. Louis faith leaders plead for gun safety and to ‘stir up the courage’

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Vigil held to promote gun safety

Faces of children who have died from gun violence are displayed on quilts during the Interfaith Vigil to Save Children's Lives on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, at Mount Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. The quilts are created by an organization called Faces Not Forgotten. The faces represent the 100 children who have died from gun violence in the city between 2019 and October 2022. Photo by Jordan Opp, jopp@post-dispatch.com

The Rev. Rodrick Burton was watching television with his wife as news broke of the shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School south of Tower Grove Park. His phone rang.

It was St. Louis Alderwoman Pam Boyd.

“They need clergy,” she told him.

Burton rushed to the school to see what he could do. St. Louis police Maj. Ryan Cousins found him and asked him to pray with Keisha Acres, the mother of Alexzandria Bell, the 15-year-old student killed by the gunman.

Burton told the story Tuesday evening at an interfaith gun safety vigil that had been planned long before St. Louis added its name the growing list of cities that have suffered through school shootings. Leaders from a variety of faiths gathered at Mount Bethel Missionary Baptist Church to remember the more than 100 children lost to gun violence in St. Louis since 2019.

They were there, in part, to recognize our shared responsibility for the crisis.

“It is we who have allowed this to happen,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. “We have failed our children.”

Bell is the latest victim, and because of the attention given to school shootings, perhaps the most prominent.

“What was most shocking to me is something the mother said to me,” Burton recalled Tuesday night. “She said, ‘All I want right now is all of my daughter’s belongings.’”

Shortly after Acres’ daughter was slain on the floor of a school building, the weight of her death had set in. Her mother wanted to hold her daughter’s things and keep them close.

Vigil held to promote gun safety

Kelly Shelton wipes her eye during the Interfaith Vigil to Save Children's Lives on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, at Mount Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. “I had to do something more,” Shelton said. “This is my community too and I want to make a positive impact.” Photo by Jordan Opp, jopp@post-dispatch.com

It’s a helpless feeling, shared by parents of children from Littleton, Colordao, to Newtown, Connecticut. It’s an emotion felt by all communities that have their names turned into social media hashtags.

“I feel helpless,” Mayor Tishaura O. Jones told the gathering.

It’s a statement that fit the moment but is striking for its vulnerability. Jones leads a city that regularly deals with gun violence, and now she has to deal with the microscope that follows a school shooting.

She’s heard from mayors whose cities are on the same list that St. Louis has joined. They’ve shared the playbook on how a mayor deals with what is to come.

Missouri, though, is different than some of those places, Jones said Tuesday night, because the state has among the weakest gun safety laws in the country.

The mayor often finds herself at war with state political leaders over how to deal with violence in the city. The problem is guns, Jones has said often, but there are few legislative tools the leader of the state’s economic engine has at her fingertips — other than to do what the faith leaders were doing at this event: preach gun safety.

Vigil held to promote gun safety

St. Louis Mayor St. Louis Tishaura O. Jones, left, speaks to the crowd gathered for an interfaith vigil on gun violence Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, at Mount Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. 

The churches, synagogues and mosques in the city will have access to more than 500 gun locks, most of them donated by the U.S. Attorney’s office and the ATF. They are tools that will prevent the occasional unintentional shooting, such as one last month, when 21-month-old Khori Patterson found an unsecured firearm in his parents’ home and shot and killed himself.

Pushing gun safety is one thing the mayor’s office, in conjunction with the interfaith leaders and groups like Moms Demand Action, can do to try to make a difference, to put faith into action.

“Gun violence is a public health crisis,” Jones said.

And that’s the same whether it’s a child playing with a gun at home, a child not being safe in their school, or a child mowed down in the cross-fire of bullets that are too often a staple of life in some neighborhoods.

So it was for Xavier Usanga last year, one of the names and faces at the vigil that faith leaders asked St. Louisans to remember. Xavier was 7 when he was shot and killed in his backyard while he played with his sisters. He was killed by a stray bullet, but that made his death no less tragic than the others.

Janice Munier, a Catholic nun, recalled Xavier’s smile as she urged those at the vigil to turn mourning to action, to “stir up the courage” to tackle gun violence in St. Louis.

Like the St. Louis police officers who charged toward gunfire on Monday, Jones and the faith leaders encouraged us to find the bravery to do what we can, one gun lock or one gun safety law at a time.

“The time for talk is over,” said Monsignor Dennis Stehly, the vicar general of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis. “The time for action is now.”

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