At Mother Bethel A.M.E. in Philadelphia, strong words against gun violence

At Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church (from right) , choir members Frances Jonson, Madison Tyler, and Natina Williams kneel with others. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
At Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church (from right) , choir members Frances Jonson, Madison Tyler, and Natina Williams kneel with others. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Posted: January 29, 2013

While gun enthusiasts perused tables at the Philadelphia Gun Show on Sunday, in another part of the city, the congregation of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church listened to a sermon and panel discussion on gun violence.

The event focused on handguns and black-on-black violence rather than assault weapons and mass shootings.

The Rev. Mark Tyler drew parallels between modern gun violence and Ida B. Wells' investigation of lynching in the South. He urged the congregation to be like Wells - to stand up and break the cycle of violence.

During the service at the historic church at South and Sixth Streets, Tyler asked people who had lost someone to gun violence to stand. More than half the congregation did.

"If Ida B. Wells were alive today, she would not be writing about white lynch mobs and the fear that black people have of white people in the South," Tyler said. "She'd be writing about the fear that our young black men have of people who look just like them."

Sunday's event marked the 150th birthday of Wells, a pioneering black female journalist who exposed the prevalence of lynching in the early 1890s and disproved the notion that blacks were lynched for raping white women.

The panelists said gun violence was the most pressing danger facing young black men today.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams dominated the panel with statistics and ideas for reducing gun violence. He praised New York's tight gun laws and said Pennsylvania should follow suit.

Williams urged a minimum sentence for illegal gun possession (currently, many gun offenders are released on little or no bail) and a law to hold people accountable for the guns they buy. Often, he said, a girlfriend or relative will buy the gun and give it to someone else. When that gun is later used in a crime, the buyer tells police the gun was lost or stolen, and the investigation goes cold.

Williams listed several attributes common among shooters: black, male, 18 to 35 years old, high school dropout, carrying a weapon someone else bought, and using guns to settle petty disputes.

Panelist Dorothy Johnson-Speight lost her son in exactly the way Williams described. In 2001, her son was shot seven times in a dispute over a parking space. The shooter was a high school dropout, and the gun had been bought by his girlfriend.

The third panelist was Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall.

Johnson said churches need to organize in support of gun-control laws with the same fervor and urgency as the National Rifle Association. "They're only as powerful as we allow them to be," she said.


Contact Jessica Parks at 610-313-8117, jparks@philly.com, or follow @JS_Parks on Twitter.

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