You Are (Will Be) My Witnesses: A Reflection on Two Witness Experiences at the 2018 General Convention
By the Rt. Rev. Thomas C. Ely
“You are (will be) my witnesses.” (Isaiah 43:10; Acts 1:8)
When the Bible speaks of the call of God’s people to “witness” it is often a both/and of giving testimony to what we have seen and proclaiming something significant about what we believe God is up to in our world. The etymology of witness is the word martyr – one who by their life, by their words and actions, offers testimony about what God is up to in the world and calls others to respond. Such testimony is often controversial and often leads to some trying to silence the one who is offering the witness. It has often led to death for the witness, hence the remembrance of various martyrs in our church calendar.
The etymology of witness is the word martyr – one who by their life, by their words and actions, offers testimony about what God is up to in the world and calls others to respond.
At General Convention in Austin, Texas, there were two powerful expressions of witness in which I participated on July 8, and which offered a profound and moving experience of Sunday worship for me. Perhaps you have read reports about these events, but I wanted to offer my first-hand experience here. The first was the witness sponsored by the Bishop United Against Gun Violence (of which I am a charter member) and the second was the witness at the Hutto Detention Center.
The witness, offered through the auspices of Bishops United Against Gun Violence, took place in Brush Square Park, across from the Austin Convention Center where our legislative sessions were held. Dozens of Bishops vested in Rochet and Chimere, many of us with orange stoles signifying “gun safety, “gathered with hundreds of others from Convention (and the community, I believe) to name and claim our witness that the nightmare of violence associated with guns in our country needs to end.
This violence includes mass murders in public places, like schools, nightclubs, malls and other public venues, but also the often-deadly consequences of domestic violence, suicide, accidents, and police actions. Our witness in response to these and other expressions of violence is not anti-gun, nor anti-second amendment. Our witness is to the devastating results of violence in its many forms that comes because of the use of firearms, often including assault weapons, in the commission of devastating and destructive acts. Our belief is that we can do better. We believe that through appropriate legislation and common-sense gun safety measures we can reduce the incidents of gun violence in our country, but to do so we must stand up to gun manufacturers and the powerful NRA gun lobby that refuses to join in the effort to reduce incidents of gun violence supported by most US citizens, including many of its own members (See, Bishops United Against Gun Violence “The Evidence” webpage at http://bishopsagainstgunviolence.org/the-evidence/.)
Dozens of Bishops gathered with hundreds of others to name and claim our witness that the nightmare of gun violence needs to end.
Our keynote speakers at the witness event in Brush Square Park were Philip and April Schentrup, the parents of Carmen Schentrup, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland who was among 17 killed at the school on Ash Wednesday 2017. Carmen was a bright young woman who played violin and piano, liked music of all types, and was active in her local Episcopal Church and beyond. She was murdered and died seven days shy of her 17th birthday.
Carmen’s parents spoke of the pain of their loss and their commitment to witness to the conviction that there are specific and significant things we can do to address the epidemic of gun violence in our society. As I stood close and below them, holding the Bishops United Against Gun Violence banner, I had a firsthand, up close and personal perspective on their grief, their witness and their passion for trying to transform the tragedy of their daughter’s death into a positive call for sensible gun laws. My eyes were filled with tears. I’m not sure I could have witnessed so boldly and bravely, but I am grateful that they are finding the strength and faith to do so. I encourage you to visit these sites to learn more about their witness:
The second, and equally profound witness on that Sunday took me to the T. Don Hutto Residential Center (more commonly known as the Hutto Detention Center) in the nearby city of Taylor. This is one of the facilities where women seeking asylum in the United States, and who have been separated from their children, are held. Our public witness at this center was in response to the actions of the U.S. government in its enforcement of immigration policies that have separated families over the last couple of months and have led to roundups and deportations of migrants. Over 1,000 of us gathered in the heat of the day to sing and pray and witness to our love and support of the women who had been separated from their children.
Over 1,000 of us gathered in the heat of the day to sing and pray and witness to our love and support of the women who had been separated from their children.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who led the witness, expressed our presence this way: “We do not come in hatred, we do not come in bigotry, we do not come to put anybody down, we come to lift everybody up. We come in love. We come in love because we follow Jesus, and Jesus taught us love.”
Such public witnesses often go unnoticed, but that was not the case with the women housed in the detention center. Some of our number processed from our “designated” witness location to a place much closer to the center itself where they could be certain that the detained women were aware of our presence, our prayers and our songs. Through the narrow slots of the windows framing their incarceration they waved white cards, pieces of paper and cloth to let us know that they were grateful for our witness. I encourage you to read more about this moving witness: https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2018/07/08/episcopalians-gather-in-public-witness-outside-immigrant-detention-center/
All of this leaves me profoundly grateful for the witness of The Episcopal Church. Our voice as God’s people seeking to live and respond to the promises of our Baptismal Covenant is needed in the public realm. How each of us chooses to make our witness to the love, mercy, peace and justice of God in our world is a personal choice. I am glad I made the choice to share in these acts of witness during General Convention. I pray that you will find your best way(s) to offer witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Featured photo: Praying outside the Hutto Detention Center. Photo by Bishop Ely.