How do you talk with your neighbor about gun violence — when your neighbor is the NRA president?

December 10, 2017

Retired Bishop Christopher Epting, former bishop of Iowa (second from left), leads a closing prayer Dec. 10 at the conclusion of a 3.2 mile walk from at the United Church of Christ in Grinnell, Iowa, to the entrance to Brownell’s factory. The Rev. Wendy Abrahamson, rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Grinnell, is in white on right. Photo: Meg Wagner

[Episcopal Diocese of Iowa] People of all ages and faiths gathered in Grinnell, Iowa on December 10th for an interfaith service of remembrance for victims of gun violence. Afterwards they walked over three miles, silently and prayerfully, to stand in witness at Brownell’s in Grinnell, the world’s largest supplier of gun parts and accessories.

The service and walk were part of “26 Days of Action Against Gun Violence” that has been organized by residents, faith leaders, Grinnell College students, and faculty. The organizers hope to engage their neighbor, Pete Brownell, president of the National Rifle Association and CEO of Brownell’s, in conversation about gun safety and ways to reduce gun violence.

“It’s been an organic process,” said Vicky Springer, one of the organizers of the days of action and a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Grinnell. “It started with neighbor talking to neighbor, individuals coming together with broken hearts, really.”

And not every town in America has the president of the NRA as their neighbor. When Pete Brownell was elected as NRA president in May, his neighbors felt like there was an opportunity for conversation.

The Rev. Wendy Abrahamson, rector at St. Paul’s said, “After Las Vegas, this all coalesced from different places. Someone asked me, ‘Has anyone ever talked to Pete directly?’ And I went, huh. That would be kind of respectful towards him as a human being. I’ll try.”

Abrahamson called Brownell’s corporate office and left a message with his secretary to see if he could meet with her and another pastor to work together towards gun safety. Then she waited. After some time went by, she realized they had mutual friends on Facebook and so sent him another message through Facebook Messenger. Abrahamson says there has been no response.

“I had found it difficult to understand why a conversation was not occurring in this community about the NRA, about gun safety, when we had this person right in our community that we could engage with in this way,” said Eliza Willis, a political science professor at Grinnell College.  “I realized that there were other people who shared my view, that this was something we should be discussing, especially because he is the president of the NRA and we have a chance to engage in some way.”

So, she and others in the group wrote a letter to him as a neighbor, as friend to many of the people in town, and as a respected member of the community. To them it seemed like a natural thing to try and have this conversation.

Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders Dec. 10 join to lead a service of remembrance in Grinnell, Iowa for victims of gun violence. After the service the group walked to Brownell’s, the world’s largest supplier of gun parts and accessories, to stand in prayer. Photo: Meg Wagner

Janet Carl, member at First Presbyterian Church in Grinnell said, “I’ve never been a part of an organizing effort that has been quite like this.” Members of the group planned 26 Days of Action Against Gun Violence, one day for every person killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, five years ago by Adam Lanza.

The 26 Days of Action Against Gun Violence included discussions, story sharing, watching NRA videos, making phone calls to elected representatives, and screenings of “Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA” and “Newtown.”

David Wheeler, whose son Ben was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary, came to Grinnell for the Dec. 5 screening of “Newtown” along with the filmmakers. David Wheeler also wrote Pete Brownell a letter, asking if they could meet and talk while he was in Grinnell. Wheeler said that Brownell did not respond.

The 26 Days included actions that could be taken by individuals and groups, in public and from home, with lots of opportunities to engage in conversation and learning about gun safety and the impact of gun violence.

“What’s been extraordinary for me personally is that I really feel an empowerment and my fear has greatly been reduced just by taking action” said Springer.

Iowa Bishop Alan Scarfe preaches at the Interfaith Service of Remembrance Dec. 10 in Grinnell. His wife, Donna Scarfe was the sign language interpreter for the service. Photo: Meg Wagner

The Dec. 10 Interfaith Service of Remembrance was held at the United Church of Christ in Grinnell and was led by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith leaders. The Rt. Rev Alan Scarfe, bishop of Iowa, saying that, “Every valley of ignorance and despair must be uplifted. Every mountaintop of fixed positions and fearful hoarding must be brought low. And every crooked road of legislative cat-and-mouse twisting and turning needs to be made straight so everyone can see the glory of God and the glory of a humanity able to learn war no more— turning its spears into pruning hooks and its swords to plowshares.”

“What could be more Iowa than that?” he added.

After the service about 100 people joined the 3.2-mile silent walk to Brownell’s factory by Interstate 80 in Grinnell. As the sun was beginning to set, they reached the turnoff to Brownell’s factory and retail store. There the group stayed for a while and prayed together. The 26 Days of Action will culminate in a vigil called “Honor with Action” on Dec. 14 in Central Park in Grinnell.

“The thing that means a lot to me in this is that it is 26 days of ACTION. Because, as everyone else is saying, I’m sick of thoughts and prayers,” Abrahamson said. “I feel like this is prayer—what we are doing.”

— The Rev. Meg Wagner serves as the missioner for communications and reconciliation for the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa.

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