SALT LAKE CITY — The effort started with four Episcopal bishops who wanted to focus the attention of their church and the broader public on the issue of gun violence.
A short time later, 20-year-old Adam Lanza opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Dec. 14, 2012, killing 20 schoolchildren and six staff members, along with his mother and himself.
"Within two weeks, we had 25 to 30 bishops who wanted be a part of this, this was in 2013. Since then, we've grown to 60 bishops," said the Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, N.J., a founder of Bishops United Against Gun Violence.
At 7:15 a.m. Sunday, June 28, during the Episcopal Church's General Convention in Salt Lake City, Bishops United will lead a march and rally to urge people of faith to seek common ground to curtail gun violence.
As Bishops United prepared the final details of the Utah event, the nation experienced another mass shooting Wednesday night.
Nine people died in a shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., police said. Dylann Storm Roof, 21, a white man who joined a prayer meeting inside the historic black church for approximately an hour Wednesday night, is accused of fatally shooting six women and three men. Roof was captured without resistance Thursday after an all-night manhunt.
"We are making a witness to Utah and indeed to the world that as people of faith, we need to claim common ground on gun violence. The incident that was reported out this morning, when you combine mental health issues, which I think is in play here, and racism, which is obviously in play, and guns, you have a toxic combination which produces tragic results," Bishop Beckwith said.
"We need to witness, we need to lobby, advocate, do what we can to forestall this epidemic of gun violence."
Bishop Beckwith said an act of gun violence in a place of worship is particularly disturbing because "we look upon our churches as sanctuaries, places of safety. People were gathered together for their Wednesday evening prayer meeting and someone disrupted it with a gun and took nine lives. That's not something we expect. It's not something that should happen.
"We gather in our churches, wherever that may be and whatever thread of the faith we employ, we gather there to be empowered to go out in the world to work with God in healing the world."
The Utah event, Claiming Common Ground Against Gun Violence, includes a prayerful procession between the Salt Palace Convention Center and Pioneer Park.
A worship service will be held at the park, including prayers and testimony. The Rt. Rev. Scott Hayashi, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah and a survivor of gun violence, is among the planned speakers.
Bishop Hayashi was 19 years old and working at a record shop in Tacoma, Washington, when he was shot during a robbery of the store. The robbers left with $9. Bishop Hayashi barely escaped with his life.
He endured multiples surgeries and lost more than 50 pounds as he recovered from the gunshots to his abdomen.
The ordeal taught the then-college freshman many lessons, perhaps most importantly, "People are made in the image of God and people have value," Bishop Hayashi said in a recent interview.
Bishop Hayashi issued following statement on Thursday:
"I am in prayer for the people of Emanuel AME Church, the people of Charleston, and for us all. It is sickening to know the terrible crimes against people seeking peace in a church. I am deeply mournful and angry that we have yet another incident of innocent people murdered. We know that the horrific crime of racism is also paramount in this case. The scourge of racism has been compounded by an epidemic of gun violence.
"More than ever, we need to witness and be heard as the people’s voice to finally have a serious conversation about gun violence. Let us pray that we have the strength, courage and wisdom to come together as one."
Bishop Hayashi has asked Episcopal churches in Utah and northern Arizona to join Episcopal churches across the country in the ringing of church bells at noon on Friday to honor the lives of the nine people who died in Charleston and to pray for all victims of gun violence.
Bishop Beckwith said Claiming Common Ground is an example of the Episcopal Church's long-held practice of wading into difficult social issues.
"We're making a witness and we intend to offer that up in prayer, hope, solidarity and peace," he said.
The bottom line is gun safety.
"What we're doing is, we're raising up an issue a lot of people agree on but are sometimes inhibited to say or to witness to their convictions because a very small minority in vocal in saying 'Oh, we can't do this.' We can do this and we can identify all of these areas where we have common agreement," Bishop Beckwith said.
The Rev. France Davis, pastor of Salt Lake's Calvary Baptist Church, said his immediate reaction to the shooting was, “How far can we go? How bad can it get in terms of violence and gun violence in particular?
“It’s been on the streets and its been common and regularly in our community. There have been conflicts in Ferguson and Ohio and other places and now to have it invade a church, a place where people are gathered for prayer and for Bible study. It’s just unimaginable.”
Rob Harter, chairman of the Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission, offered solidarity with the Charleston community.
“While words alone fail to address the sorrow and pain this senseless and violent act has created, the members of the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission would like to express our heartfelt condolences and collective sorrow to all of the families of the victims and those directly affected by this deplorable violence,” he said.
Commission members reminded the public of the Rev. King’s words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Contributing: Nicole Vowell