“Love is stronger than death.”
These are four of the hundreds of messages written on orange utility-locator flags on the lawn in front of Lake Street Church of Evanston. The flags create a rectangular orange swath in the grass. A black sign looms over them like a headstone.
“This is the start of our month-long look at gun violence that will continue through Oct. 20,” said Reverend Michael Woolf, senior minister of Lake Street Church.
“It’s our ritual anchor, the number of mass shootings of 2019,” he said. The number comes from Wikipedia, where shootings make the list if they meet two of the criteria for “mass shooting” used by nine sources: Stanford University, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, Mass Shooting Tracker, Gun Violence/Vox, ABC News/the FBI, and the Congressional Research Service.
On Sept. 22, before the flags were planted, Rev. Woolf spoke to the congregation about gun violence as a byproduct of a culture of fear in our society. “When I preached my sermon before we did this I talked about intimate partner violence,” said Rev. Woolf. “Specifically how women bear the brunt of folks’ possession and use of guns.
“And also about fear and how that fear plays out unevenly. Fear kills people and it kills people of color wildly disproportionately to white people. We need to at least say that this culture of fear is not benign and kills people of color more.”
“The main contention I have as senior minister is that it ought to be impossible to be able to worship without thinking about this issue,” said Rev. Woolf. “For at least a month out front [of the church] you’re going to be thinking about gun violence and what we’re going to do about it. Each instance was taken by one of the congregants –what happened in the shooting, how many people were injured, how many people died and the place where it happened.
“We took a writing implement and we either drew an image or some sort of commemoration, prayer or some level of engagement. It was a really holy and moving time for people.”
The idea came to Rev. Woolf after three of the worst shooting rampages of the year occurred in August. On Aug. 3, 24 people were killed and 22 wounded in a Walmart in El Paso, Tex. The next day, nine people were killed and 27 wounded in an entertainment district in Dayton. On Aug. 31, a third mass shooting took place in Odessa and Midland, Tex. in which eight people were killed and 25 were wounded.
According to the website Mass Shooting Tracker, August has been the deadliest month to date with a total of 94 killed and 252 wounded.
“As someone who grew up in the shadow of Columbine,” said Rev. Woolf. “I have a developing sense of moral clarity about the issue and I know many people are looking around and expect there to be some sort of savior. And I know a lot about looking for saviors because of my job, but the thing is we’re really looking for moral leadership, and we’re looking for a way out of this situation.”
Reverend Woolf came to Lake Street Church in April of this year. He has a Master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School and is working on his dissertation on the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s.
“I think it’s important for people to know that people of faith are not just the Christian right and that there are more people who care about justice in the world.
“Church has had scandal after scandal after scandal. Capital ‘C’ church not our church. Leaders have not been held accountable and that’s been a big turnoff. I don’t think that people have given up on God so much as whatever institution was talking about God at the time.”
The role of church today, according to Reverend Woolf, is to “connect people to community” and “transform the world with our social activism.”
“This is our lane and we went and we planted each flag and people were really moved by that experience. It was really transformative for people to have something physical to anchor a lot of their complex feelings about gun violence. Progressive people of faith are trying to figure out what’s going on, what’s happening in this country.
“People want something tangible to engage in this issue because all this stuff is very abstract and scary and frankly to have the ability to plant a flag or two and be able to engage in that is an important public witness for people.”