Across Fort Wayne this week, children and youth will go back to school. Parents will take the obligatory first-day-of-school picture, and children will eagerly get on the bus or nervously walk to their first class, silently wondering what the year will bring.
In so many ways, this time of year marks a new beginning more than Jan. 1 does. Perhaps this is because there's so much newness in the air. Students start off the school year with new clothes and new supplies. Pencils are sharpened, sneakers aren't yet scuffed, and school floors glisten with a fresh coat of wax. Parents, too, start the year with new hopes and dreams, wondering what the new school year will hold.
Most years, my children begin the school year with a new backpack. With four children between the ages of 11 and 21, we've had all sorts of backpacks in our house: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dora the Explorer, Spider-Man, a pink backpack with a unicorn, a blue backpack with a dinosaur and, as they got older, sturdy backpacks that could hold all of their books and a laptop.
But this year, a new backpack has come on the market: a bulletproof backpack. In the wake of last week's mass shootings, sales of the backpacks soared 200% to 300%.
When I first learned of these backpacks, I literally felt sick. And then a picture of my 11-year-old trying to defend herself against an armed shooter with her backpack went through my head, and sickness gave way to anger.
Is this what we've come to as a nation? Leaving it up to our kids to defend themselves with their backpacks? Is this the best we can do?
At First Presbyterian Church, where I serve as the pastor, we blessed the backpacks of all our children and youth who are going back to school. These are the same children whom we promised to guide and nurture when they were baptized. Is this really the best we can do?
There have been 12 mass shootings at schools and universities since Columbine. On my cynical days, I question whether we will ever take action to prevent another one from happening. After all, if we as a nation couldn't pass sensible gun legislation after Sandy Hook, what would cause us to do it now? For me, Sandy Hook marked the end of all sensibility and rationality.
But as a person of faith, I can't let cynicism get the best of me. I believe we have a moral obligation, no matter what our faith, to address the issue of gun violence in our country. For some people, that's writing their legislators; for others it's demonstrating; for some it's praying; for others it's educating themselves on gun laws; and for some it's urging those who regularly handle weapons properly to be wise examples for others.
Nine years ago, the Presbyterian Church (USA) urged its members to awaken to the ongoing tragedy of gun violence. It urged the “church to pay attention not just to the faithfulness of our spoken word, but the effectiveness of our action in stopping the preventable deaths of so many of our sons and daughters, parents and siblings, friends and neighbors. It is time to enact God's 'No.'”
I don't pretend to have all of the answers. And I count myself among the silent and therefore complicit, and I'm not proud of that. But I'm willing to turnaround and engage the hard question of “What can I do?” knowing the answer may not be what I want to hear but is what I need to hear.
In a few short days, children will be back in school, signaling a time for new beginnings. Can we commit to doing right by them, so that a little boy can carry a Spider-Man backpack, or a teenage girl a Vera Bradley backpack, not a bulletproof backpack? Can we at least do that? Because it's time, more than time, for a new start.
The Rev. Dr. Anne Bain Epling is pastor/head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne.