Newsline Special for January 29, 2009

Newsline Special: Heeding God’s Call January 28, 2009

“…My peace I give to you” (John 14:27b).


1) Heeding God’s Call brings peace churches together for common effort.

2) New faith-based initiative on gun violence is launched.

3) A reflection on the spiritual discipline of bringing violence to light.

4) NCC leader tells peace church gathering, ‘Peace is the message of the church.’


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1) Heeding God’s Call brings peace churches together for common effort.

“Heeding God’s Call: A Gathering on Peace” sponsored by the three Historic Peace Churches–Church of the Brethren, Quakers, and Mennonites–in Philadelphia on Jan. 13-17 has brought together people of faith for a common peacemaking effort. The gathering saw the launch of a new faith-based initiative against gun violence in America’s cities (see stories below), and produced a joint “epistle” as well as more than 20 focus statements for future cooperation.

The event was held alongside a series held by the peace churches on different continents, this time in the United States. Previous peace church gatherings have been held in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In 2010 a meeting of the peace churches in the Americas will be held. The peace churches also will be represented at a World Council of Churches meeting signaling the close of the Decade to Overcome Violence, in Jamaica in 2011.

“The significance of the event has been for the American peace churches to participate in the global effort to hold consultations on issues of peacemaking in the 21st century,” said Stan Noffsinger, general secretary of the Church of the Brethren. “During this time when the US has been seen as such an aggressor by the rest of the world, it was most important for us to bring the Historic Peace Churches together with others who believe there is another way of living.”

Set in the historic district of Philadelphia, Heeding God’s Call gathered within blocks of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and other famous sites from the revolutionary period of American history.

The gathering met at Arch Street Meeting House, a historic Quaker meeting house, for daily worship and plenaries. The group included delegations from the peace churches along with invited participants from other Christian traditions and church-related nonprofits, as well as observers from the Jewish and Muslim faiths. It was reported that a total of 23 faith traditions were represented among the 380 participants.

On the “facing bench” in the Quaker style of worship were leaders from the three convening groups: Thomas Swain, presiding clerk of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends; Susan Mark Landis, peace advocate for the Mennonite Church USA; and Noffsinger as general secretary of the Church of the Brethren.

Other meetings brought participants to Philadelphia’s Constitution Center and Visitors’ Center. On one evening, a “World Café”–rounds of small group discussions to develop focus areas for the gathering–was held on the upper floor of the Constitution Center while cool jazz was played by the Anderson Cooper Project, and desserts were served.

Many different speakers and preachers led in addressing the theme, “Strengthening our witness and work for peace in the world by inspiring hope, raising voices, taking action.” At the opening plenary, speakers included National Council of Churches (NCC) general secretary Michael Kinnamon, who brought greetings from the wider ecumenical movement, and James A. Forbes Jr., senior minister emeritus of Riverside Church in New York who gave the opening address.

Vincent Harding, chair of the “Veterans of Hope Project: A Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal” at Iliff School of Theology and a noted Civil Rights activist and author, gave daily reflections. Plenary speakers included Ched Myers, a biblical scholar and director of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, who offered a biblical analysis of Jesus Christ as a nonviolent activist; and Alexie Torres Fleming, founder of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice in the South Bronx, N.Y., who told her story of becoming involved in neighborhood organizing against drug-related violence.

Preachers included Colin Saxton, superintendent of the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church, based in Newberg, Ore.; Matthew V. Johnson Sr., national executive director of Every Church a Peace Church and pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Atlanta, Ga.; Gayle Harris, suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Church Diocese of Massachusetts; and Donna Jones, who works with inner-city youth at Cookman United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.

A panel on the “Faith Basis of Our Peace Testimonies” featured speakers from the three Historic Peace Churches. Brethren speakers were Belita Mitchell, a past moderator of Annual Conference and pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Harrisburg, Pa.; Mimi Copp, a Church of the Brethren member living in an intentional Christian community in Philadelphia; and Jordan Blevins, assistant director of the Eco-Justice Program of the NCC. A second panel discussion on “Speaking Truth to Power” was given by church and nonprofit staff who work in Washington, D.C., including Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office.

In addition to worship and plenary sessions, participants met in small groups for discussion, ate meals together, and were invited to support and take part in daily witnesses against gun violence.

The gathering closed Jan. 17 with a day of worship, education, and action in sanctuaries and meeting houses across the city, focused on the gun violence that has been causing hundreds of deaths a year in Philadelphia. Participants traveled to one of nine host faith communities–seven churches, a synagogue, and a student center–where morning programs were planned and led by several congregations jointly in each sanctuary. A total of 40 partner faith communities from Philadelphia took part, including Christian, Muslim, and Jewish congregations.

That afternoon, an interfaith service was held at Holy Ghost Church, prior to a march to Colosimo’s Gun Center. Organizers said the day’s events were planned “to confront the avoidable tragedy of gun violence in our communities,” and that the store was identified as a focus for the campaign as “a leading supplier of crime guns.” The march included hundreds of people according to the Brethren Witness/Washington Office, and marked the end of the gathering.

An “epistle” or letter written from the gathering issued an invitation to “all people everywhere” to heed the call to peacemaking. The epistle committee included James Beckwith, pastor of Annville (Pa.) Church of the Brethren and a former moderator of Annual Conference. “We believe this is indeed a time when peace can happen,” the letter said in part. “Awaken with us to this new opportunity to act as the united Body of Christ, along with friends of peace everywhere, in a world desperately in need of justice and peace.” (Go to for the full text.)

Also created were more than 20 focus statements identifying priorities for ongoing work. Topics ranged from becoming a Living Peace Church, to building community that supports radical Christian living, to recognizing and overcoming racism, to working on disagreements about human sexuality. Some focus groups highlighted current political situations including the violence in Gaza, the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, immigration concerns, and the issue of torture.

Church of the Brethren representatives who helped plan and organize the gathering included Stan Noffsinger, Church of the Brethren general secretary, and Bob Gross, executive director of On Earth Peace, who served on the advisory committee. The steering committee included Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office, and On Earth Peace board members Don Mitchell and Jordan Blevins.

“We are not alone,” Noffsinger said, reflecting after the meeting on what the peace churches have learned from the gathering. “We may approach the ways to make peace through different expressions…but we are not alone. We shouldn’t hesitate to seek peace and pursue it.”

A photo journal of Heeding God’s Call is available at (click on “News” to find the link for photo journals). Go to for audio recordings of the major presentations. For more information contact Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office, at

2) New faith-based initiative on gun violence is launched.

Throughout the week of Heeding God’s Call, daily witnesses against gun violence were held at Colosimo’s Gun Center in Philadelphia. The witness included nonviolent protest, civil disobedience, and the arrests of 12 people over a series of afternoons.

The gathering closed on Jan. 17 with a day of events focused on gun violence, billed as the beginning of a new faith-based initiative against gun violence in America’s cities starting with Philadelphia. Events included an interfaith service followed by a march and rally at Colosimo’s Gun Center.

“We believe that God is calling us to send a dramatic signal on behalf of the young people that suffer most from this epidemic of violence,” said Andy Peifer, chair of the Public Witness Planning Group. In an e-mail explaining the new initiative he wrote, “Many have lost hope in us, lost hope that we have the will or the vision to DO SOMETHING about this…. God is calling us to something larger than we thought!”

“We all know too many people are dying,” said Bryan Miller, executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey, at the interfaith service.

According to a report by the Associated Press (dated mid-2008) in Philadelphia 343 people were killed by guns in 2006, and 330 were killed by guns in 2007. The numbers had begun to slow in 2008, the AP report said.

Miller explained that guns from Pennsylvania also are making their way into neighboring states, and that guns bought in Philadelphia are often the ones that are killing people in New Jersey.

Colosimo’s is “one of the worst gun shops in the US,” Miller added. He outlined the new initiative’s emphasis on requesting gun shops like Colosimo’s to sign a voluntary 10-point code of conduct titled “Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership,” that was developed by the group “Mayors Against Illegal Guns.” The group includes Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter.

Walmart is the largest retailer of guns to sign the code. “If Walmart can do it, any gun shop in Pennsylvania and any state can do it,” Miller said. “Colosimo’s is just a starting point.” He encouraged people in attendance from other places around the country to go to their local gun shops to ask them to adopt the same code of conduct.

Preparation for the new initiative against gun violence took many months, according to Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office, who was one of the 12 arrested for civil disobedience at the gun store. Preparation included personal conversations with the owner of Colosimo’s Gun Center and conversations with Philadelphia police, Jones said. Organizers also recruited 40 faith communities in Philadelphia to support the campaign, including Muslim, Jewish, and Christian congregations.

Organizers hope that a code of conduct for gun stores will reduce the flow of weapons to the streets by reducing “straw purchases” or wholesale legal purchase of guns by people who then resell them to traffickers of illegal guns. Organizers also hope the campaign will spread to other cities across the country.

During the week’s witnesses at Colosimo’s Gun Center, groups of people held signs and banners, engaged passersby in conversation, and encouraged motorists to honk in support. The arrests for civil disobedience took place on Jan. 14 and 16. Jones and Church of the Brethren member Mimi Copp were in the first group of five people arrested on Jan. 14 for not leaving the store after the owner refused again to sign the code of conduct. Two more groups were arrested on Jan. 16, a group of three men who sat in the front entrance of the store, and another group of four men who sat on the sidewalk in front of the police who were guarding the door.

“When the gun shop owner repeatedly refused to sign the Code of Conduct, our group chose to occupy the store until he agreed to sign,” Jones said (see his reflection below). “We were subsequently arrested with varying charges. A court date has been set for March 4.”

Prayer and scripture were part of each day’s witness. The 12 people who carried out civil disobedience prepared with prayer, and received extensive support including help with bail money and rides back to the Heeding God’s Call gathering from jail–some in the middle of the night. They each spent between 12 and 24 hours in police custody, Jones said.

An incident during the second round of civil disobedience brought into sharp focus the tragic personal effects of the gun violence in Philadelphia. A local resident who had stopped by to ask about the witness arrived just as the group of three men knelt in the doorway of the store. As she watched, a police captain arrived and gave the men a series of verbal warnings that they would be arrested if they did not move.

In what became a quiet chorus to the police warnings, the woman began to recite numbers: “Five people die a week,” she said. As the police captain repeatedly warned about the severity of the laws on blocking a fire exit, she repeated: “Five people die a week…. Five people are shot a week…. Three hundred people are shot a year….”

While the police waited for a van to arrive so that they could make the arrests, the woman explained her personal tragedy: She knew someone who died after he was shot 11 times. He was a young man, a friend, she said.

(Go to for a report from the “Catholic Standard and Times,” a newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, that includes more information about the initiative and communications between religious leaders and Colosimo’s Gun Center.)

— Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren.

3) A reflection on the spiritual discipline of bringing violence to light.

As five men and women bound by handcuffs lined up along a cold concrete wall, one of them turned to the others and asked, “Help me discern the spiritual disciplines of what we are doing?”

For months plans had been taking shape for an action of nonviolent witness to bring to light the depraved violence of weapons that are used to end lives. No matter the cause or reason–intentionally, accidently, or even without malice or with deviant anger–gun violence explodes on a daily basis in Philadelphia and other locations around our nation.

Statistics confirm the tears and outcries of mothers who lose sons and daughters, and communities who lose security and confidence in living. In 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, 55 percent of the gun-related deaths in the US were suicides. There was nothing special about 2005, as suicides have been the number-one gun death for 20 of the past 25 years. Forty percent of gun-related deaths were murders, 3 percent were accidents, and 2 percent were legal killings, including when police shot criminals and those of undetermined intent.

Guns are violent weapons and their use must be addressed. Individuals, the community, state, and church must be active partners in this venture.

On Jan. 14, five participants in the Philadelphia peace gathering, “Heeding God’s Call,” chose to take a stand against gun violence using civil disobedience. Later in the week, another seven people participated in this witness calling attention to the need for those who sell such weapons to be diligent in attempting to keep the weapons off the streets.

For the 12 people who were arrested, and the many more people who supported them, this act of civil disobedience was a statement to the city of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania: more stringent laws and collaborative attempts to reduce the availability of hand guns and automatic weapons must be a priority issue.

Mimi Copp, a Church of the Brethren member living in Philadelphia, and I were among the 12 who were arrested. We were among the first five people who carried out civil disobedience at a Philadelphia gun shop that is well known for selling weapons that end up being used for violence.

Our group had spent several weeks trying to negotiate with the shop owner to agree to a code of conduct for gun shops. The code endeavors to provide those who sell weapons with a solid basis for keeping handguns out of the hands of people who might use them violently. When the gun shop owner repeatedly refused to sign the code of conduct, our group chose to occupy the store until he agreed to sign. We were subsequently arrested with varying charges, including defiant trespass, disorderly conduct, and conspiracy. A court date has been set for March 4.

In the end, after 12 to 24 hours in a Philadelphia jail, each participant agreed that prayer, meditation, and a true sense of call to end the violence on our streets were the spiritual disciplines that directed our actions and supported our witness.

— Phil Jones is director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office.

4) NCC leader tells peace church gathering, ‘Peace is the message of the church.’

National Council of Churches (NCC) general secretary Michael Kinnamon brought greetings Jan. 13 to the opening session of “Heeding God’s Call.” The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends and the Church of the Brethren, both member communions of the NCC, joined with the Mennonite Church USA to bring together an ecumenical group with peacemaking as its aim. In his remarks, Kinnamon said peacemaking is the role not only of historic peace churches, but of the church ecumenical:

“Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And greetings from the 35 member communions of the National Council of Churches. With violence the order of the day in such places as Gaza, Afghanistan, Congo, Somalia, Darfur, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, it is imperative that the followers of Christ proclaim a different vision of life in human community– which is why I am so grateful to Thomas and the other organizers of this historic conference. May God grant that our time together be a visible and vital witness to God’s gift of Shalom.

“In this brief welcome, I want to emphasize one point: the ecumenical movement, of which the NCC is an instrument, is most essentially a movement of peace. Part of the point is sociological: Christian divisions (which ecumenism seeks to overcome) often exacerbate political conflicts and hinder effective peacemaking. War is too massive an evil to be responded to denominationally.

“The real point, however, is more theological. God’s gift of reconciliation is for the world; but the church is entrusted with this message of reconciliation–and the church delivers the message not just by what it says or, even, by what it does, but by what it is, by the way we live with one another. The church’s calling is to be a demonstration project of God’s gift of peace, and the fact that Christians are so obviously fragmented and co-opted by the powers of the world is what drives the ecumenical movement.

“Ecumenical conferences have declared all of this unambiguously for the past 100 years, perhaps never more so than at the first Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948. ‘War,’ said the delegates, ‘is contrary to the will of God.’ This has been repeated at various ecumenical conferences and I am going to repeat it here: War is contrary to the will of God. It is true that many Christians still see war as a last resort. But there is now broad agreement that war is ‘inherently evil’ (WCC)–which means that Christians should never identify human violence with God’s purposes. Contrary to political leaders and old Hollywood movies, it is never redemptive.

“You see why it is so important to remember this at the beginning of our conference. Radical peacemaking is usually associated with one segment of the Christian community: the Historic Peace Churches. ‘Another peace protest? It must be the Quakers and Mennonites and Brethren.’ What I am stressing, however, is that radical, costly, insistent peacemaking is not simply your witness. Peace is the message of the church ecumenical!

“This is not to be taken for granted. In the history of the church, those who emphasized peacemaking have often feared that unity would weaken the prophetic edge of their proclamation, while those who have emphasized unity have often feared that peacemaking would prove divisive. That’s why the historic peace churches have, at times, been sectarian, while churches more inclined to collaboration have generally left matters of war and peace to the individual conscience.

“But the modern ecumenical movement has rejected this dichotomy–and I hope we will as well. We are Christians: recipients of the gift of peace. We are Christians: called to be ambassadors of reconciliation by the way we live with one another. May it be so, even here, even now.”

— This report was taken from a press release from the National Council of Churches USA.


Newsline is produced by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of news services for the Church of the Brethren, or 800-323-8039 ext. 260. Newsline appears every other Wednesday, with other special issues sent as needed. The next regularly scheduled issue is set for Jan. 29. Newsline stories may be reprinted if Newsline is cited as the source. For more Brethren news and features, subscribe to “Messenger” magazine, call 800-323-8039 ext. 247.

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