It’s been a while since I posted on this blog. I’m not writing for magazines much anymore, but I occasionally have a chance to speak in church. The following is a homily I wrote for a Memorial Day service that remembered the victims of violence in Wilmington, DE, for the past year.
At the end of this talk, there is a link to the slide show referenced in the text. There is also a link to Jea Street Jr.’s wonderful song, “Teddy,” which was performed by Jea during the service.
Whose children are these?
Homily at First Unitarian Church of Wilmington, May 27, 2018
By Jeffrey Lott
Have you heard about the mass shooting in Delaware? The death toll was shocking—greater than Columbine, more than Parkland, more than twice the number killed in the recent shooting in Texas. Yes, right here in Delaware.
Maybe you caught something about it on the news. I’m thinking that you must have heard about Delaware’s mass shooting as it happened. But if you didn’t, I think I know why:
Our mass shooting didn’t happen at a mostly white high school. It didn’t happen in my neighborhood or, I’m guessing, in yours. It didn’t happen where our business leaders live. No, Delaware’s mass shooting happened just down the road in Wilmington.
It didn’t happen all at once. But in the past year—since Memorial Day 2017—twenty-one people were killed in Wilmington, mostly by guns. Their average age at death was about 24. All but two were men or boys. They were somebody’s children, somebody’s brother or sisters, husbands and fathers. Every one of these 21 victims of Delaware’s recent mass shooting were loved by someone. And, without exception, all were black.
In a few minutes, you learn their names. You’ll see their faces and how old they were when they died.
When these folks died, flags were not lowered to half staff. Politicians did not offer their thoughts and prayers. There was no big debate about gun control when these folks died. Some of their deaths were mentioned only in the small type, in the police report.
There were no elaborate memorials—just candles and balloons and photos, handmade signs and teddy bears on front stoops and street corners.
Their families were torn apart. And there was anger in the street and the desire for revenge, which sometimes led to more death. And for their survivors, in the midst of all this pain, all this loss, there was—and is—little expectation that anything will change.
Delaware’s mass shooting happens over and over, year after year. Annually since about 2010, between 20 and 30 gun deaths (and about four times as many injuries) have been reported. Yes, the city and state are working to turn this around.
A new mayor and his police chief say they are “cautiously optimistic,” and, so far in 2018, only eight have died—perhaps a reason for optimism, but we can’t yet call that a trend. The stubborn death toll of Delaware’s mass shooting has subsided some years, only to rebound the next.
And for years, the toll on young people, on children under 18, has been especially severe.
According to the Associated Press and USA TODAY, during the 3½ year period through June, 2017, Wilmington led the country in per capita shootings and deaths of young people aged 12 to 17. Among this age group, the rate of injury and death in Wilmington was nearly twice that of the second worst city, Chicago. During the period studied, Chicago saw 1.8 teens shot per 1,000. Wilmington had 3.5 / 1,000.
“Wilmington is the most dangerous city in the country for teenagers,” New Castle County councilman Jea Street told a reporter. “But nobody cares, because it’s black teenagers.”
Why should we care? Let’s begin by asking, “Whose children are these?” Whose children are living in fear and suffering and dying at such a high rate in our small city, in our small state?
When I pose this question—whose children are these?—the easy answer is to name a constellation of causes and circumstances. We say these are the children of a failing educational system, of economic inequality, of the lack of jobs, of the cycle of poverty. These are the children of a racist criminal justice system, of mass incarceration, of the war on drugs.
But this still doesn’t answer my question: Whose children are these? Who is responsible for these kids? And why do they find themselves in such mortal danger, growing up just a couple miles from here?
Again, we look for explanations. We turn to other “reasons” that are largely stereotypes: These are the children of single mothers, of absent fathers, of guns, drugs, poverty, systemic inequality, of crime, of hunger … these are the children of hopelessnes
All of these reasons and causes are “responsible” in one way or another—but that’s not the sort of responsibility I’m asking you to think about today. I want you to consider our personal moral and spiritual responsibility for the well being of other people’s children.
As we remember today the victims of Delaware’s annual mass shooting, my answer to the question, “Whose children are these?” — is that these are our children.
As you watch the following video featuring the work of our guest musician today, Jea Street, Jr., I ask that you remember the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist faith—the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
This is the ethical, moral, and spiritual lens through which we must approach all forms of violence—especially violence against and among children—not only in Wilmington, but across America and the world.
Whose children are these? These are our children. And we must love and care for them as we care for our own sons and daughters. As a society, we publicly mourn the children who have been killed in their schools in these shocking mass shootings. But a far greater death toll—the real, day-to-day mass murder in America—is happening in the streets of our cities.
In the beloved community that we seek, there is no room for any distinction between “our children” and “their children.” This is the promise of our faith, that Wilmington is our city, and its welfare is our responsibility. That its children are our children. May we work to make it so.
Slideshow: Litany_FirstU_5-27-18 (pdf)