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Parkland tragedy, heart for change inspires '5000 Letters'

Parkland tragedy, heart for change inspires '5000 Letters'

Conference News Missions and Outreach

Following the murder of 17 innocents at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church realized its responsibility to take action.

A child's letter handwritten letter requesting lawmakers to take action
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Weems, superintendent of the South East District, asked the question: "Are we reaching young people?" She added that there are "plenty of them out there, and we need to be connecting with them."

But how? And what could anyone say?

Be a comfort to those affected? Of course.

Offer reassurance of God’s love in a time of tragedy? Obviously.

But what happened in Parkland—described by Bishop Ken Carter as a “burning bush moment”—demanded more.

“As followers of Jesus, we empathized with these persons and their loss—the students, the faculty, the survivors and the shooter. And we know that God loves them and that they are near to the heart of God,” he said.

“This naturally brings us to the language of thinking about them and praying for them. Yet, clearly in our culture, there has been a response to the language of thoughts and prayers. So, as we were praying that week—it was Ash Wednesday—we began to think about how we might respond in another way, an additional way.”

Out of that came a call to action known as “5,000 letters.”

United Methodists throughout Florida were urged to visit the website for information on how to contact their state and federal representatives in Tallahassee and Washington and ask lawmakers to enact stricter regulations on the sale of guns.

And at the end of the Legislative Session, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill passed by the state’s House and Senate to raise the legal age to buy an assault-style rifle in Florida to 21.

Lawmakers also approved a three-day waiting period on the purchase of all weapons, as well as a ban on the sale of bump stocks that can turn a weapon like the AR-15 rifle into something resembling a machine gun.

Clearly, there was considerable pressure on lawmakers to act after Parkland, and no one is claiming the letters from the Florida Conference was the sole reason. The march on Tallahassee by Douglas high school students to demand change was a ground-shaking event.

But the project surpassed its goal of sending 5,000 letters and hearing from so many constituents who are weary of gun violence could be considered a contributing factor.

“I hope it was,” said Rev. Vance Rains, whose First Church of Coral Springs is located a short distance from the high school where the killings took place. “It was cathartic for some of those at church just to put their thoughts down on paper.

“I think the letters reinforced what the kids did when they went to Tallahassee. And we hope it spreads. We’ve been contacted by churches all over the country asking what they could do. I told them to write their own letters to their lawmakers so that their states don’t have to face what we did.”

Rev. Magrey DeVega of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa served with Bishop Carter on the committee that launched the letter-writing initiative.

“The church has never done something like this before,” he said. “But after so many shootings across the country, this was something we really wanted to do.

“My church responded positively to the idea, and I believe we had a large number of them participate, but I think we all recognize we have a long way to go.”

Candlelight vigil people pass candles to honor those who were lost in Parkland tragedy
Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter stated there was a response to the language of "thoughts and prayers." He said the conference began to think "how we might respond in another way."

Rev. Dr. Cynthia Weems, superintendent of the South East Florida district, which includes Parkland, said the involvement shouldn’t stop with writing letters just to politicians.

While preaching recently at a church near where the killings took place, she urged members to write to her, as well, with changes they would like to see.

“It has been wonderful to see the conference-wide effort to respond now with an act of solidarity, and I’m so appreciative of our Bishop’s leadership on this,” she said.

“We all understand that we have to stay involved and committed. And I told the people at that church where I was preaching I’d like to get a letter that says, ‘Cynthia, why do so many of our churches have lousy youth programs?’”

She said that while the church was right to raise its voice about needed changes in the law, it’s also important to reach out to young people all over the state before they become involved in activities that can lead to tragedy.

“Are we reaching young people?” she asked. “Churches tell me all the time that the young have gone away. Well, go get them. There are plenty of them out there, and we need to be connecting with them. There might be another Nikolas Cruz out there that we could influence before he turns to bloodshed.”

Nikolas Cruz, 19, is the accused gunman in Parkland.

The message is clear for United Methodists: be involved, raise your voice and be aware that being a Christian is not a spectator sport.

“We have to stay vigilant,” DeVega said. “We have to recognize this is a complex problem for which there are no easy answers.

“I think one thing we’ve all learned is that you can’t legislate moral changes. Legislation can’t change the human heart. It’s up to all of us to work on that.”

The reward is great, though. As Bishop Carter said: Fighting for change is vital, so that “our world is more like a sanctuary, more like the world God wants His children to live in, who He loves, and we want our children to live in, who we love.”

--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.

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