I often send a note offering "thoughts and prayers" to people in the wake of personal loss or tragedies. And I mean it. It was natural and sincere for many to offer their "thoughts and prayers" to the high school students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas after they lost 17 friends, teachers and coaches in a tragic mass shooting with an AR-15. And I was immediately struck by the response by many of those students, even those of deep faith, who said thoughts and prayers were no longer enough. I believe in the power of prayer, but as the apostle James tells us, "Faith without works is dead." Therefore, it is time to think about the connections between thoughts, prayers, and actions in relationship to gun violence.
The students who survived the now-dubbed "Valentine's Day Massacre" were all born after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, which marked the beginning of the modern era of mass shootings in schools. Therefore, these horrific, heart- breaking and family destroying moments have become normal for this generation of young people. Some of their first memories at four and five-years-old were participating in active shooter drills, akin to the nuclear drills of my generation. As they got older, it was not unusual for many of these students to fearfully ask their parents if they might get shot in school. But now they are teenagers watching and listening to the world around them —often online — like many of us started reading newspapers and watching the evening news at the same age.
And they are asking some hard questions of the rest of society: "Why is this normal? Why is the older generation, including our parents, not protecting us? And why have our elected leaders allowed this to happen and accepted it?" The students have already moved from questioning to acting, saying: "This can and must be changed, and we are going to do that."
Pay attention: Social change always comes when the next generation decides to no longer accept what the last generation accepted.
High school students are refusing to accept the distractions, excuses and inaction that has prevailed for so long. This is a generation that knows how to communicate and connect with each other more than any generation before.
The big question is what can we do — the older generations? What should the high school student's parents do? What can our elected officials be forced to do? And yes, what can our churches and those of us who call themselves people of faith do now, to protect our young people?
It's time for all of us to support the emerging agenda of the high school students who are leading now. It's time for the rest of us to support them by doing what they are calling us all to do. The student survivors are turning their grief into action. They are dealing with their trauma by deciding that the status quo on guns in this country is no longer acceptable.
As I listen to the students asks, I think of our faith communities. Like every state in the country, Florida is home to many faith traditions. Parkland is no exception, with a variety of churches, a strong Jewish community and people of many other faiths.In the aftermath of the shooting, places of worship did what we expect them to do: They hosted vigils and funerals for those who were killed and those who are grieving. But churches nationwide can, and need to, do so much more in the days ahead. In addition to offering our thoughts and lifting our prayers, we can follow the Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivors in taking action. So what do we mean when we say we are offering up our prayers — and how can those prayers move us to action? Here is what I believe to be the best way forward — and I hope that pastors and congregants across the country will join me.
I call on pastors and places of worship to commit to praying for all of their young people. On March 18, schedule a special prayer during the service, inviting your students and teachers to the altar as the congregation prays for their safety and welfare. Pray over them and offer your students and teachers the space they need to pray, process, plan and act.
And we know that our faith and our prayers move us to action. So we are calling on churches, other houses of worship and people of faith to join a Church Boycott of the NRA. Most importantly, let's make gun violence a faith issue in our churches.
Our children are leading us, and our youth groups can help point the way forward. It's time to listen and follow their lead.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His new Audible spoken-word series, Jim Wallis In Conversation, is available now, as is his book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.