Erin Wathen is on vacation this week. Her friend and colleague, the Rev. Brandon Gilvin, is today’s guest blogger.
By the Rev. Brandon Gilvin
It was just a few days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Middle and high schoolers crowded into an old Congregationalist Church that had become an event space off of Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd., here in Chattanooga, Tenn.
As for us, we were the pastors in charge. There to facilitate the conversation.
How have school shootings impacted your lives?
What would you like to see done by your school, your city, your state, your country?
What can you do?
We were there to coach on organizing, on advocacy, on messaging.
But we weren’t the only support they were getting, and we were far from being the only role models for activism that they had.
The kids on TV — a core group of student leaders from Stoneman Douglas — had, through their earnestness and savvy, drawn a road map of activism that inspired the students we gathered with, and they began to dream of walkouts and marches that would wake up their communities, and think of ways to engage their representatives in state and federal government on gun laws that would help reduce school shootings and other violent incidents. They considered ways to turn these actions into a sustainable movement. They named themselves Chattanooga Students Leading Change, and they got to work.
They learned a few things from us, sure, and they were glad to have our support, but soon, we discovered, we were there to make space and get out of the way.
The next few weeks passed by like a whirlwind.
There were walkouts protesting gun violence and school shootings across the schools in Hamilton County, both public and private.
There was a march, hosted and organized by our students, but attended by more than 1,000 people.
There was a trip to Nashville, delivering letters and postcards to the Governor’s Office and meeting with legislators. There was a candidates’ forum, where those seeking state and local office were able to sound off on their perspectives on and solutions for gun violence. There were more vigils, because there were more shootings. There was a school board meeting. There was a trip to DC, where the students were able to meet with Rep. Fleischmann and Sen. Corker, and take a deep dive into the democratic process.
And everywhere, always, there were news cameras and reporters, asking questions. Looking for a story. Interviewing the students. Grabbing the best snippets, the most impactful quotes, the right image.
They were no longer just the kids who had gathered — angry, worried, scared, and inspired, scribbling on newsprint spread across creaky hardwood floor of an old church house.
Chattanooga Students Leading Change; they had become the Kids on TV.
School is over for the summer in Chattanooga. Summer vacation has begun. Students are beginning to scatter in the wind, some making plans for camps and vacation, others grabbing internships or applying for jobs, and some graduating and packing their bags for college.
But the minds of the kids of Chattanooga Students Leading Change were hundreds of miles away. Santa Fe, Texas. Another school shooting. Eight students, two teachers dead. Thirteen others wounded. Again.
They decided to remember them with a special vigil a week after they would have graduated. Outside the courthouse in downtown Chattanooga. They lined the pillars marking the entrance with graduation gowns, printed a sign for each victim, sharing her or his story, dreams and passions. There were flowers placed in recognition of the teachers. A candle burned in memory of each life lost.
Passersby stopped, took deep breaths, wiped tears, stood, asked questions.
The news crews came by, too. And of course, they had questions.
“Texas is far away from Chattanooga. Why is this important for you?”
Answers came quickly from the students:
Because graduation is one of the most important events in a person’s life, and this was taken from them.
Because having them — these gowns, these flowers — here makes it more real.
The dead were very real people. Strange how the very symbols of their absence — loose graduation gowns blowing in the wind on a hot day, laser-printed pictures and handwritten biographies — could make them more real.
Show that they weren’t just statistics.
Show that they weren’t just another, “If it bleeds, it leads” news story.
Show that it wasn’t hopeless.
This is how the world changes, right?
As the local news crew finished up, headed back to finish their story for the evening broadcast, my cellphone buzzed and made the sound it made whenever there is a news alert. I looked at the screen
Noblesville, Indiana. Shots Fired at Middle School. 3 People Injured.
More pictures of kids on TV, coming up on the news tonight.
More work to be done.
The Rev. Brandon Gilvin is the Senior Pastor of First Christian Church, Chattanooga, Tenn. He has passions for community building, social justice work, and the intersection of culture and faith, as well as a love for reading, writing, live music and the outdoors. Check out his blog, The Long Road Home.