HILLSIDE, NJ — The Nia Fellowship Baptist Church in West Orange celebrated their ‘God Not Guns’ Sabbath at its Youth Day Service on Sunday, Sept. 25. Newly appointed Hillside Superintendent of Schools Antoine Gayles was the guest speaker at the service.
Also in attendance were Elaine Lane, founder of David’s Shoes, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating young people about gun violence, and Sgt. Robert Hartman, a member of the West Orange Police and Clergy Alliance.
Gayles addressed the crowded church, offering a message of prayer and hope, and saying that solutions to gun violence must be found. “I have a vested interest in the safety of our community,” Gayles told his audience. “We’re faced with tremendous challenges when it comes to guns and violence.”
Gayles discussed the violence that he believes has permeated today’s society. “The entertainment industry fills our minds with violent scenes and lyrics,” said Gayles, who also noted that the media broadcasts images of violent news repeatedly.
Gayles also said that he hoped that law enforcement would do a better job working with communities.
The Rev. Alphonsus Platt, spiritual leader at Nia, told LocalSource that the event was founded in 2008 by a church member who wanted to do something to address gun violence. “She was still dealing with and grieving the tragic death of her 18-year-old son,” said Platt in an email. “In her research she discovered information about the God Not Guns Sabbath, which is a project of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.”
According to Platt, the mission of his church is to continue the efforts as a church to educate the public about gun violence and to promote community awareness.
“It is a continued effort of ours since September 2008 to create a conversation about the need to reduce gun violence and to send a message to our young people and community that we should honor life,” Platt said. “I, along with members of my congregation, have been personally affected by gun violence and we continue to pray for change.”
Platt addressed some of the issues that have been at the forefront of the national conversation, specifically in black communities. “I am very concerned as an African-American male and as the father, grandfather, uncle, and brother of African-American males, about racial profiling by police officers,” said Platt.
“This event responds to the issue of racial profiling by addressing the need for more education in our community about the continued problems of gun violence. It also responds to the need for more education and training of our police departments about the concerns of the African-American community and diverse communities in the country.”
Lane, a former member of the church who lost her son to gun violence, was at the Sunday event to display the collection of shoes gathered from the family members of victims of gun violence, and to spread her message to young people.
Lane spoke with LocalSource about her son, David, and the organization that she created in his honor. “In 1998, my son, David, was killed as a result of teen violence,” Lane said. “When I began to recover from grief, I noticed just how rampant teen violence was occurring in our country. Being an educator and having a love for teens, I knew I had to do something about this devastating problem. I finally realized that if young people honored their own lives, they would have the capacity to honor the lives of others.”
According to Lane, it was in 2004 when she saw an exhibit displaying the shoes of the military men and women who had lost their lives in Iraq, along with shoes belonging to Iraqi citizens, that spurred her to action. “I was deeply affected by it,” she said.
In the year her son was killed, Lane said, 3,792 young people under the age of 19 were killed by gun violence, also confirmed in Center for Disease Control reports. “This number illuminated the enormity of the problem, so I was moved to establish David’s Shoes,” Lane said. “I made the decision to collect 3,792 shoes to create an exhibit to demonstrate how serious the problem of teen violence is. I felt that if I collected shoes that represented youth whose lives had been taken by violence, maybe young people would have the similar response I had when I viewed the military exhibit.”
Lane said that the David’s Shoes Scholarship Program gives $500 each year in book scholarships to young men in urban areas who make the decision to attend college. The students receive the scholarship for all four years of attendance at a college or university. They are also paired with mentors. Thus far, the organization has awarded $25,000 in scholarships. “Many of these young men have had to overcome incredible challenges and yet they have the vision and strength to succeed,” she said. “We honor their determination and desire to honor their lives as well as others.”
According to Lane, the shoes would be used as visuals to share with students, hoping they would make a connection and recognize the importance of honoring their own lives, and the lives of others. Lane said that she has presented the exhibit at schools and in community settings. “Young people really respond to it,” she said.
Lane believes that it is crucial to focus on the issue of gun violence. “Some may feel it is a political issue, but living in a society where taking the life of someone is easy, it is a spiritual issue,” said Lane. “We have lost too many lives because of the proliferation of guns combined with systemic societal issues such as poverty and racism.”
The event, said Lane, is responding to a specific need in the community. “I think it is responding to the fact that we see each other as separate and apart rather than all of us being a member of the same human family,” she said.
Patricia Session, a founding member of the church, as well as office manager for Gayles at Hillside Public Schools, told LocalSource in an email that it is the church’s mission to send a message of peace. “The mission of ‘God Not Guns’ is to send the message that we should not resort to violence in a world where there is chaos and confusion,” Session said. “We should focus on God, and not guns, to eradicate the ills that plague us as a nation.”
According to Session, who is also on the board of directors of David’s Shoes, the event — celebrated in conjunction with Youth Recognition Sunday — was an opportunity for Gayles to speak to the issues facing so many of today’s youth.
“Inviting the Hillside Superintendent of Schools to deliver the message is an awesome representation of how the combined efforts of church, community and school will help to raise awareness of gun violence as a spiritual and moral crisis that is plaguing our youth today,” Session said. “We hope to perhaps deter negative thoughts of violence that may be in the minds of our youth and help them to honor their lives as well as the lives of others.”
Platt said that he will continue to spread his message of prayer, power and peaceful protest. “My message continues to be that if we make an effort to embrace more of God in our lives and in our heart as a people, we would have less tragedies that result from gun violence,” Platt said. “We have to encourage prayer with power and peaceful protests. Powerful prayer comes from worship. Peaceful protests produce progress. Peaceful protests are important because it brings attention to problems so that conversations about positive solutions can take place. It was the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights movement that changed America for the better.”
Platt said that he is hoping this year’s event will make a tangible difference in his community. “I pray that this year’s event encourages the West Orange Police Department to be proactive through their Police-Clergy Alliance to address the needs of the community,” he said. “I pray that it will also motivate others to get more involved in the community and help the West Orange Police Department achieve their Police-Clergy Alliance goal to reduce tensions by fostering a partnership and establish a line of communication between the police and the community.”
An event like this, said Platt, is more crucial than ever before. “It is an effort to be proactive, rather than reactive,” he said. “Communication is the key. A conversation is always easier to have when you are trying to prevent a problem. The conversation is more difficult when you are responding to a problem. Social media makes our event more crucial now than ever before. Social media has forced people to talk about issues around the world. We have to get back to addressing our issues at home and locally in a proactive way so that we do not become the next event being discussed around the world.”
Platt believes that Gayles, who is the first African-American man serving as Hillside’s superintendent, serves as an inspiration to today’s youth. “That alone should offer a sense of hope to the community,” Platt said. “I am sure his message and presence will encourage our young people to not live in fear, but live with a relentless pursuit of education so that they can contribute positively to the conversation and solutions to change.”