Guided by the Christian moral compass of “love thy neighbor” and treating others equally as children of God, St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery has been working towards racial justice and human rights for over 50 years.
The 250-year-old church is known for its annual Cross Memorial to honor the year’s victims of gun violence. The memorial has been a constant at St. Mark’s since 2013, a former rector’s response to the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Dolores Schaefer, a parishioner of the church for 28 years, has worked on the memorial for years and led this year’s installment.
“There’s all sorts of, you know, activity in response to this mass shooting. And when we started delving into it more, it was, in looking at the scope of gun violence, both of people who were killed and injured,” said Schaefer. “Mass shootings were actually a relatively small category within the overall problem of gun violence. So we sort of saw it as a way to draw attention to the issue for the people in the parish and then as well as the larger community.”
On the church’s east yard facing Second Avenue, 94 crosses with white t-shirts with names scrawled in black ink pinned to the shirts were temporarily planted on the green. Schaefer enlisted a handful of other parishioners who she knew were fully vaccinated to help pin names to shirts and plant them in the ground.
This year due to rain, the memorial went up the Saturday before — one of many things that made this year’s event a little different. Aside from having services on Zoom with a musical memorial slideshow with photos of the shirts for parishioners to see — if they couldn’t see them in-person through the iron fence on Second Avenue themselves — this year’s memorial will also be different because it isn’t staying up very long.
“Usually, we keep it up for a couple of weeks, this year, it’s probably going to come down on Saturday,” said Schaefer. “And the reason for that is simply that people really wanted to gather in-person on Easter Sunday. And the only way to get kind of a large group of people together right now, since the church has been super-cautious about COVID, is to do it outside.”
Normally, the Cross Memorial is centered on one specific theme of gun violence. Past themes have included: domestic violence, young people, children under the age of 17 and people in New York. Schaefer admits that last one was hard because New York does “have some of the best gun laws in the country.” This year, due to the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and the pandemic, Schaefer agreed that they couldn’t have a theme.
“So among the 94 shirt crosses that are up are the names of every person of color who was killed by police over the last year ... There’s also a number of domestic violence incidents that, at least according to the data available, were somewhat related to COVID and being kind of, you know, cooped up ... and then the victims of the mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder are among the names, as well as victims of other mass shootings that actually happened right around the same time,” Schaefer said.
Statistics and Stories
Schaefer and fellow parishioners who work on the memorial scour databases for the statistics and stories on those lost each year to gun violence.
It’s hard doing the research, said the Rev. Anne Sawyer, the church’s 14th rector. “It’s one thing to look at the numbers, but then it’s another thing to read the names and the stories and hear the number of people impacted, because of the 44,000 [people who died over the course of last year due to gun violence]. Of course, all of them had families and both their own families, as well as all the lives that they touched. So the number of people who are impacted by gun violence is tremendous.”
On March 16, the day of the Atlanta mass shooting at three local spas, there were 134 cases of gun violence resulting in 52 deaths and 65 injuries nationwide. Just days later, on March 22, the day of the Boulder mass shooting at a grocery store, there were 124 incidents of gun violence, resulting in 46 deaths and 85 injuries. “So just on those two days, while our attention was focused on the brutal violence in these two different cities, nationwide the gun violence was multiplied by many fold,” said Sawyer.
Gun violence is an issue that St. Mark’s has continually spotlighted, beyond the annual Cross Memorial. After a parishioner lost a family member to suicide about four years ago, she asked to “really secure and lock guns in a safe location,” said Sawyer who came to the church later, in 2017.
“After I arrived, we actually wrote that gun safety sentence into a resolution that went before our diocese, the Episcopal Diocese of New York, as a proposed resolution to be adopted by the entire diocese. And that, in fact, was presented three years ago and was passed,” said Sawyer. “So that gun safety sentence has then but was shared throughout the diocese with over 200 churches in the Episcopal Church.”
Sawyer also said gun violence is a topic that the church has preached on throughout the year and that they will also hold forums, having conversations with both gun owners and those who are against public gun ownership.
“We remain committed to working together in any way possible to define ways to live together in peace and to express love to each other,” said Sawyer. “And to fight for justice. So that that’s my prayer.”
“It’s one thing to look at the numbers, but then it’s another thing to read the names and the stories and hear the number of people impacted.” The Rev. Anne Sawyer, rector of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery