By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T

Gun violence is unfortunately an issue that just never goes away.

The Administrative Group of the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia held a one-day retreat July 12 first to learn more about the issue and secondly to explore possible options the faith communities of Philadelphia have in dealing with it.

The retreat, under the title Zones of Peace, which was attended by approximately 20 representatives of local religious leaders, was held at the Presbytery of Philadelphia, the Presbyterian headquarters on East Gowan Avenue. Representing Cardinal Rigali were Msgr. Michael J. Carroll, director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and Immaculate Heart Sister Judith Kreipe, the assistant director.

During the opening listening session Msgr. Carroll introduced representatives of four groups with an interest in the issue: CeaseFirePA, the National Rifle Association (NRA), Mothers in Charge and Heeding God’s Call. Afterwards, in a session led by Rabbi Alan Iser, members of the Administrative Group explored options that can be presented to the leadership at a Religious Leaders Council meeting in early fall. {{more}}

Iser, who represented Conservative Judaism at the meeting, is also an adjunct theology instructor at St. Joseph’s University and Villanova University.

“I thought the retreat was very productive, not only for the content, but because we were able to come to a consensus on what steps to take to reduce gun violence in the Philadelphia area,” he said. “As religious leaders, I feel we have a special role to play in bringing this issue to our communities. This is particularly true for those of us who live in the suburbs. We need to sensitize them to the fact that this is not just an urban issue. What goes on in the city affects all of us.”

While the NRA basically represents gun owners, its presentation stressed keeping guns safe from children.

CeaseFirePA works on legislation to reduce gun violence. Heeding God’s Call concentrates on getting gun shop owners to follow a code of conduct to lessen the possibility of straw purchases of guns, and Mothers in Charge represents the families of victims of gun violence, noted Rev. John Hougen, a Melrose Park Lutheran pastor, who heads the Zones of Peace Steering Committee. “I was impressed by the presentations,” he said.

As an outcome of the session, the group intends to urge the Religious Leaders Council to issue a strong and united statement against gun violence that will encourage their constituencies to take action in their neighborhoods.

They will also recommend that inspanidual congregations become involved in the issue by creating annual awards to recognize inspaniduals and groups that are effective in working to reduce gun violence in their neighborhoods, Rev. Hougen said.

The initiative for the retreat came from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter meeting with the Religious Leadership Council and asking if the council would consider the issue, Msgr. Carroll explained. He too was satisfied that the retreat was fruitful. “It wasn’t just meeting for the sake of meeting; it was to accomplish something practical,” he said. “I think it takes time to develop unanimity among groups.”

Representing the Muslim community at the retreat was Adnan Zulfiqar of Quba Masjid.

“It is really important for Jews, Muslims and Christians to sit down, realizing steps have to be taken,” he said. “The four groups who spoke each had a different approach, but I think it important to give an opportunity for people to present their point of view.”

For him the most compelling presentation was that of Mothers in Charge, he said, “listening to the personal stories of people who had tragedies in their lives.”

Also, gun violence struck close to home for Zulfiqar. Recently “a block and a half away from me a man was killed. We don’t know why it happened,” he said.

The Religious Leadership Council, of which Cardinal Rigali has been a member, was founded six years ago and normally meets twice yearly in the fall and spring, Msgr. Carroll explained. The Administrative Group, which reports to the council, meets four times yearly.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.