We live in a violent world. While God’s call for peace among humans is definitive, stories of sin in the form of violence are easy to find across the history of humanity—from biblical accounts to last night’s leading news story.
The effects of violence are far-reaching, and the church isn’t immune. Rather, sometimes it’s unsettling and deeply personal. On May 31, an ELCA member was killed in a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Va. And in June 2015, another member shot and killed nine members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., during a Bible study.
This church acknowledges that it’s composed of people who have been victims of violence, who have perpetrated harm and who work to protect against it. While living in this community together no doubt presents myriad challenges, this is the work of the church, as Lutherans are called to strive for justice and peace in all the earth and to live out a gospel message that proclaims forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.
In 1994, the ELCA Church Council adopted the social message “Community Violence.” Roger Willer, ELCA director for theological ethics, said the church addressed matters of gun violence early in its formation, and that this message grew out of its understanding that focusing only on guns misses the depth and complexity of community violence.
The social message provides a path for the church to address issues of violence together as a community of worship, education and service, advocacy and ongoing deliberation.
Willer said a distinctive component of the social message is the position on restorative justice. “People tend to think about justice as equality and getting fair treatment,” he said. “If someone shoots someone, they get thrown in jail. That’s punitive. But that’s a very shallow measure of justice. There’s only true justice and true peace when the relationship that’s shattered by that harm is healed.”
Larry Jorgenson, a retired ELCA pastor and drafter of the social message, said this language of restorative justice can be traced back to Luke’s Gospel. “This was an attempt to witness on the basis of what the church was all about,” he said. “We resist hate; we love the enemy. And it’s with recognition that this is often a radical sounding thing.”
Willer agreed: “You don’t find this message among police or politicians. But the church lifts up this aspect because we have people who are police officers, victims and perpetrators. Because we have all those people, we see the more complex picture.”
“There’s only true justice and true peace when the relationship that’s shattered by that harm is healed.”
Just as the issue of community violence itself is complex, so are the many and varied ways the church responds to its roles as peacemakers and justice seekers, guided by the healing power found in relationship together and in Christ.
Breaking the cycle
Addressing issues of violence as a church includes working with partners in communities, such as social ministry organizations. LSS CHOICES for Victims of Domestic Violence, part of Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio, is the primary domestic violence agency in Franklin County, Ohio.
The agency provides a 24-hour crisis hotline, shelter for families fleeing violence, counseling, transitional housing and assistance navigating the legal process as it relates to reporting domestic violence. It also offers education throughout the community, including training churches how to respond to someone in a domestic violence situation, and advanced programs for nursing and medical students at local universities.
One of the first steps in breaking the cycle of domestic violence and creating social change is to acknowledge that it is a societal concern.
“It is easy for us to think of domestic violence as someone else’s problem or a family issue,” said Sue Villilo, interim executive director of LSS CHOICES and assistant vice president of community-based services for LSS. “Given that 1 in 3 women in the U.S. will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime, it is much more than an individual issue. We have created a societal structure where domestic violence is prevalent and perpetuated. It’s impacting all of us. We have to acknowledge and address it as a systemic issue.”
In January, LSS CHOICES moved into a larger shelter with a capacity for 120 people, and Villilo estimates it will serve around 2,300 people this year.
For the agency, domestic violence is seen as generational and cyclical. “Boys are 10 times more likely to become abusers if they’ve been raised in an abusive household,” she said. “We see it and we hear it from our clients that this is something they experienced growing up themselves. Because of that, they’ve had some normalizing of the violence in their homes. One thing we do in the shelter is work with the children who come in to help them develop some resiliency and learn about healthy relationships.”
Villilo said LSS CHOICES knows that the healing process is integral to helping break the cycle of violence, and it’s a responsibility in which the agency places a lot of focus. It helps children identify feelings, acknowledge that negative emotions are OK and talk about ways to express themselves.
“We have case management and counseling within the shelter,” she said. “We also have a family activities coordinator who helps get kids in school but also helps plan fun, normal activities for the people who are staying at the shelter—things like birthday parties. We do a lot of things to be able to connect with the families and engage them in services and the healing process. It’s so important.”
Part of this church’s call to reconciliation includes embracing people who have perpetrated violence. The social message states that laws and their enforcement are necessary while recognizing that these human-made institutions can be corrupted by sin, and that “tough on crime” policies can “blind us to the injustices that breed violence in the first place.”
To build communities of faith inside and outside of U.S. prisons, Ed Nesselhuf, an ELCA pastor who died in 2016, started Prison Congregations of America in the 1980s.
In October 2018, ELCA member Renae Griggs became the executive director of the ministry. Previously, she spent almost 15 years in law enforcement in Florida, where she was the first female SWAT officer and first female homicide detective in her department. When she was becoming a certified police officer, she spent 11 months working in a men’s jail, which is where she first learned about the depth beyond inmates’ convictions.
“What happened was I was naïve enough to be curious to ask [the inmates] about their stories, and they were gracious enough to share them with me,” Griggs said. “I learned that these crimes of violence don’t happen in a vacuum and everyone has a story.”
Griggs said these stories and the power found in people sharing them is the thread that shaped her career and led her to ministry. After she left law enforcement, she attended college for a master’s degree in forensic psychology. She started working on post-conviction cases of people who’d been convicted of homicide.
“I was considered a criminal behavior expert,” she said. “I understood criminal mindset and the roots of violence, and what I discovered was that no matter what techniques we apply, the one thing that worked every time was when people got a dose of Jesus. Once they learned who they were in Christ and were able to receive the unconditional love of God and grace and mercy, it changed their life.”
During all the time she’s spent inside prisons, Griggs found that the absence of love traces through the many intersections contributing to violence. “Where there is an absence of love, there is an oversupply of fear, and it drives everything,” she said. “People respond from a dark place where love doesn’t exist or where they don’t recognize it.”
Referencing Romans 5:20, Griggs said it’s out of this darkness that she has seen radical transformation, and that she’s never felt the Spirit more strongly than when she’s inside prison.
“And when you get around people who have been so hungry and thirsty for grace, and then they find it, you can’t help but be moved and feel the Holy Spirit in that place.”
“People in prison are desperate for God because they’ve lost everything else,” she said. “They think what they’ve done is so bad that God can’t possibly love them. But when they see the blood of Jesus is indiscriminate and the cross really did take it all—no matter what—it changes things.
“And when you get around people who have been so hungry and thirsty for grace, and then they find it, you can’t help but be moved and feel the Holy Spirit in that place. They’re on fire because they didn’t think anyone could love them. The jubilation from the reconciliation can’t be put into words.”
Griggs said her career in law enforcement exposed her to flaws in the criminal justice system and that now her perception of justice is different, which she likens to an element of Lutheran identity. “The Lutheran church is all about both/and, and it’s messy, but that’s life. This middle space is where there is healing. I want healing to take place for the victim and for the person who did it. I define justice by where there is healing.”
Griggs said forgiveness is the key to that healing, and that it’s the hardest thing to do. “The only way to get there is by looking through the eyes of Christ. Then the other stuff falls away and you begin to see differently and perceive people differently,” she said.
“For people to be part of the healing process, they have to first find out what’s behind their inability to give grace to this person when [they’re] perfectly OK giving grace to this other person. It’s painful to do this. It’s like crawling through jagged glass. But when you’re able to, that’s where healing comes in and that’s where justice takes place.”
Finding common ground
Yehiel Curry, bishop-elect of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, can trace his path to ministry and the development of the congregation he served, Shekinah Chapel, Riverdale, Ill., to a camp that was started to provide mentorship on constructive, nonviolent leadership skills.
The camp, called SIMBA (Safe In My Brother’s Arms), was started in 1993 by ELCA leaders who saw an opportunity to create a rite-of-passage mentoring program for African American boys to learn about healthy ways to process emotions.
St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Chicago, began hosting a regular worship service called Shekinah Chapel to provide an opportunity for the Chicagoans involved in SIMBA to gather more frequently than the camp experience. As the chapel evolved into a broader worshiping community, Curry was called to be its lay mission developer and was ordained a few years later.
“My way to the Lutheran church was through SIMBA,” Curry said. “I was never looking for the Lutheran church. I was looking for a mentoring program, and they were already doing this in my neighborhood.”
Curry said he has a lot of gratitude for the church because it introduced him to a way to live out his mission. “You’ve got to be in touch with your story because that’s the only way mission comes alive,” he said. “My dad was murdered in [the 1970s] on the South Side of Chicago. I know what it’s like to be a victim of community violence. I know what it does to a family. I know what it does to children. I’ve lived in the communities that lead the news cycle every night, and I know there is another narrative. I think it’s our job to make sure that other narrative is out there.
“It took me so long to get to this realization, but now I’ve been able to say that this experience—this major moment in my family’s life—was so impactful that I began to dream of another way and then found programs that were doing that work. I felt called to be a part of them, to journey with them.”
SIMBA eventually grew into a separate nonprofit called Rescue, Release and Restore, of which Curry is a leader. It created two new programs—SIMSA (Safe In My Sister’s Arms), which expands the mentoring camp experience to African American girls, and MYLA (Multicultural Youth Leadership Academy), a camp for teens to develop leadership skills for a multicultural world.
“When we listen to one another, we learn some things. The church can be the center of those listening posts.”
Curry said these camps create opportunities for people to listen to each other, engage in dialogue and understand how individuals can share their gifts and receive others—relational practices he believes lead to constructive conflict-resolution skills.
He said the church, as a relational body, is well positioned to lead these practices. “When we listen to one another, we learn some things. The church can be the center of those listening posts,” he added. “We can’t deny, especially in Chicago, it’s a polarizing time. Allowing voices to be heard allows us to realize that we’re more similar than different. And by learning this, people think twice and calculate the costs.”
Curry said a Shekinah parishioner who is a conflict-resolution specialist has spoken at the church about what he has learned about people who have committed acts of violence. “He says, ‘If those people would’ve waited three seconds, they never would’ve done it,’ ” Curry said. “So that’s our goal. We’re fighting for those three seconds.”
Today, 25 years after its adoption, the “Community Violence” social message is still all too relevant. Everyone is captive to the sin of violence as its reach touches every community, but the gospel messages this church follows point to a way out and call on people of faith to be people of healing.
“Seeking justice and making peace is our avocation,” Willer said. “It’s not our job. It’s a way of life. This social message reminds us that it’s a journey. God is already at work doing this and is beckoning us to join.”