Two days before the anniversary of the Newtown massacre, grieving families from around the country filled the Washington National Cathedral on Thursday to plead that loved ones lost to gun violence won’t go forgotten, and that the country will find a way to curtail the illegal use of firearms.
One by one, many of those relatives stepped forward to tell their stories: the father of a man killed in the July 2012 attack in an Aurora, Colo. movie theater; the father of a teacher killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012; a 15-year-old boy whose older sister was gunned down on a Chicago street; the father of a man shot as he dined with his wife in San Diego; a Hartford, Conn. pastor whose son was killed in the city where he preached.
“Those who’ve gathered here today show me that my family is not standing alone,” the 15-year-old, Anthony Hardmond, said, holding his sister Ashley’s photo aloft.
He concluded, as the others did, with the promise: “I will remember.”
The audience responded: “We will remember.”
The 90-minute vigil began just before 4 p.m., when the lights of the cathedral dimmed and the sanctuary drew quiet as bells rang for 3 minutes — each representing 10,000 of the more than 30,000 people killed in gun violence last year. Along the interior walls were t-shirts emblazoned with the names of people shot to death this year in the nation's capital.
Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy opened with benedictions urging that the Newtown attack remain a rallying point for peace.
"Almost one year has passed” since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which 26 children and educators died, “and so many other violent deaths since then,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, his voice breaking. “Three hundred sixty-five days. And although much has not yet been done, there has been much honor and action all over America, communities coming together in acts of kindness in remembrance of those who lost their lives.”
The Rev. Mel Kawakami, senior minister of Newtown United Methodist Church, said the point of the service was not only to remember the victims and their families, but also to thank police and rescue workers who regularly rush toward danger to save others, and activists who campaign against violence.
"We gather to say, 'No more'," Kawakami said.
The vigil wasn't billed as a political event, but it nevertheless included several sharp remarks in support of stricter gun laws, and damning critiques of the gun lobby.
The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Washington National Cathedral, recalled the sermon he delivered a couple days after the Newtown attack.
“A year ago next Sunday, I said from this pulpit, 'The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.' I said that then, and I say it now. I believe that the forces of love are greater and stronger than the forces of hatred.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington D.C.'s delegate to the House of Representatives, called for a continued "persistence" in the fight for gun control in Washington.
So did the Rev. Anthony Motley, pastor of Washington D.C.'s Redemption Ministries. "The law is slack and needs to be strengthened," he said.
The service continued with testimonials from more relatives of victims: a survivor of the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech; the brother of a man incapacitated in the 1997 shooting at an Empire State Building observatory; a man who lost his mother, and whose father was wounded, in a shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Each ended their stories by saying, “I will not be silent.”
The audience responded: “We will not be silent.”
Carole King sang a hymn. The World Children’s Choir performed “The Angel’s Lullaby.”
The vigil was organized by The Newtown Foundation, a charitable organization with multiple goals: honor the memory of the Newtown victims, increase awareness of the thousands of other people killed in shootings every year, and lobby lawmakers for stricter gun control measures. Every few months, the group arranges visits to Congress by delegations of families of victims.
While there was an overwhelming political motive to those trips, this one was different. The National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence was timed to take place just before the Newtown anniversary, intended to focus on the nation's victims while drawing attention away from Newtown itself. That small bucolic community in Connecticut has chosen not to mark the anniversary in any formal way, and asked that the rest of the country turn its gaze elsewhere.
Among those in the audience were five Oakland women who'd never been to the nation’s capital before, invited by the Newtown Foundation. They packed everything they could into the visit: meetings with a U.S. senator and staff of two Congress members to talk about gun control, volunteering at a domestic violence shelter as an “act of kindness" and connecting with people around the country just like them, who’d lost loved ones and wanted desperately to keep them from being forgotten.
“I had no idea I’d ever be here,” Davoria Williams, whose son, Clifford Snead, was murdered in October 2012, said over lunch with her friends before Thursday's vigil. “When my son was with me, you couldn’t have told me I’d be in Washington D.C. for a national candlelight vigil.”
The rims of her eyes grew moist. “But I'm here.”
Her friends — all part of a informal support group they called Their Lives Matter — listened quietly. Brenda Grisham, whose son, Christopher Jones, was shot down in 2010. Sherron and Stacy Hogg, sisters of Sedric Gadson, murdered in 2009. Antoinette Johnson, mother of Terrell Reams, shot to death in April. Murders that all remained unsolved.
Sharron Hogg said she felt empowered by her visit, and would leave with a deeper appreciation for the breadth of the gun violence problem.
"I've looked at the faces of people from all over the country who have brought pictures of their loved ones, and it made me realize this is not a Newtown epidemic or an Oakland epidemic. This is a worldwide epidemic."
Also at the vigil was Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse, was killed in Sandy Hook Elementary.
“I’m here just to honor and remember Jesse and the great son he was,” Heslin said before the vigil, standing in the cathedral entrance wearing a large brass belt buckle engraved with his son’s name. “And the other victims. It’s not about a political agenda or belief. It’s about honoring and remembering.”
Everyone in the audience was handed a single burning white candle while the World Children’s Choir sang “My Beautiful Town."
The candles remained lit until the service's conclusion, when an organist began playing the hymn, "This Little Light of Mine." The audience, singing along, walked toward the exits. They passed baskets full of handmade paper hearts, taking one as they snuffed the flames and continued out into the freezing night.