United by their shock and sadness at the recent spate of mass shootings, members of various religious communities gathered in Visalia over the weekend for the Interfaith Peace Vigil to End Gun Violence.
The event was held Sunday evening, August 11, at Memorial Park in Visalia.
High on the list of attendees’ priorities was limiting access to so-called assault rifles, weapons intended for use on battlefields that have become common in the United States. Assault rifles were the weapon of choice used by shooters to kill more than 30 people and wound dozens of others during a series of attacks in Gilroy, El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio that began in late July.
“They’re (assault rifles) killing everyone,” said Ed Bergtholdt, who carried a sign during the vigil calling for a ban of the weapon. “We don’t need them. Even sportsmen don’t need them.”
Beyond Thoughts and Prayers
Bergtholdt, who has joined various public protests and vigils since the Vietnam War, said such demonstrations can help shape public perception and policy.
“I’m hopeful if we make enough noise, maybe we’ll do something,” he said.
Cosponsored by Visalia’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the aim of Sunday’s vigil was also to move beyond mere thoughts and prayers.
“We’re here to support the community in their concern and grief in the loss of life in the last two weeks,” said Rev. Suzy Ward of St. Paul’s. “We’re also here to show there’s more to do than prayer.”
Also sponsored by the Watch, a weekly political protest focusing on Congressman Devin Nunes’ lack of public appearances, the Interfaith Vigil was an opportunity to call for legislative action to prevent further large-scale gun violence.
“We can do something the rest of the civilized world has done: severely limit gun access,” said Earl Cruser, a member of the Universal Unitarians Fellowship of Visalia.
Jim Reeves, who attended the vigil to represent area atheists, used the event as an opportunity to respond to Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux’ recent social media call for greater use of concealed weapons to counter the threat of mass shootings.
“More people with more guns is not the answer,” Reeves said.
Boudreaux’ statement came in the form of a tweet sent out on August 7, three days after the Dayton, Ohio attack on August 4. The shooting resulted in the death of 10 people, including the shooter. Twenty-seven people were injured.
“I encourage all CCW (a license to carry a concealed weapon) holders in Tulare County to exercise your rights,” Boudreaux wrote. “Do so legally and only with a valid permit. Secure our communities and protect life by being able to defend ourselves against active shooters, threats to life and those who use guns for criminal behavior.”
“We have got to make this change,” said Phil Appelbaum, a lay leader at the Visalia synagogue Congregation B’nai David. “This has got to stop.”
Appelbaum pointed out the Visalia Interfaith Vigil happened to coincide with the anniversary of the first night of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The following day, one of the rally’s attendees drove his car into a group of counter protesters, killing one and injuring eight others.
Visalia’s Interfaith Vigil also fell on Tisha B’Av–a Jewish day of fasting marking several historical tragedies, including the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Appelbaum encouraged those attending the vigil to follow the Torah’s directive to welcome strangers, an action he says the Jewish holy book repeats “more than thou shalt not kill.” The recent killings prompted Appelbaum to fast on Tisha B’Av for the first time in 50 years.
“It’s something you can do,” he said.
Not the New Normal
During the vigil, Maritza Altamirano presented her poem the Fallout, a work she says is about “questioning the current reality.” As a reaction to the recent shootings, Altamirano’s poem puts at least part of the blame for the uptick in shootings on President Donald Trump’s use of language she says incites violence.
“Ever since he’s been in administration, it’s been happening too much,” she said.
Altamirano also fears the frequency of mass shootings has made people numb to the violence.
“It shouldn’t be normalized,” she said.
For event organizer Julia Jump, the Interfaith Vigil represented a rejection of violent events.
“At least for us, we can come together and reflect. We can be at peace,” she said.
It was also an opportunity to set an example for those who wonder how to respond to the outrageous acts of random violence.
“Sometimes we feel like this is a dark world,” she said. “We are the lights that exist in the world.”
Rev. Ward said members of her church have begun wearing bright orange clothing as a symbolic response to the shootings. The color is worn by hunters so they can avoid being shot while in the wild and is intended to attract attention.
“We want to be noticed, too,” Ward said, “to stand up and be seen.”