More than 100 US urban youth and members of local Anabaptist churches came together earlier this month (November 2006) for Packing the Peace of Christ, a conference focused on a Christian response to handgun homicide, which takes an average of one life per day here - write Justin Shenk and Shannon Burgess.
Through worship, rap and the spoken word the conference, held at Philadelphia Mennonite School, delivered a Christian message of peace, urging participants to 'pack the peace of Christ', instead of a gun.
Anabaptist pastors and youth leaders organized this conference with a grant from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in response to Philadelphia's increase in gun violence. Some 380 people were killed in 2005 by gun violence, and 359 people have died, mostly from handguns, so far in 2006. This is our day-to-day reality, said participant Sherri Michalovic.
One of those who died this year was 23-year-old Kevin Johnson, who was expected to speak in the conference. Johnson, who was paralyzed when he was shot two years ago, died unexpectedly a few days before the conference.
Two weeks ago Kevin and his mother talked about their sense of a calling and commitment to spreading the word about the danger of handguns, said Fred Kauffman, MCC programme coordinator in Philadelphia.
His absence was a sobering reminder of the consequences of handgun violence, Kauffman said. He had an amazingly sweet spirit. Kevin said if I had remained angry and bitter it would have hurt me and nobody else. So I had to forgive. And in fact, one of the participants in the attack later became his friend.
A youth competition highlighted creative alternatives to violence through the arts, including essays, visual arts and rap. In one of the workshops, Conrad Moore, a trainer for MCCís Damascus Road Anti-Racism Process, analyzed the violent history of the United States, concluding that violence is not a problem limited to urban youth it is a national problem.
In a workshop on the handgun debate, Pennsylvania State Representative John Myers of Philadelphia spoke about his proposal that individuals be limited to buying no more than one handgun per month from licensed gun dealers. The legislation, which does not regulate guns bought at gun sales, recently failed to pass in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
Ladd Everitt, from the National Coalition to Stop Gun Violence said a Pennsylvania law prevents cities such as Philadelphia from enacting gun laws that are tougher than existing state laws. Pennsylvania has no licensing or registration for firearms, no waiting period for firearm purchases and no state law banning assault weapons. Buyers are required to go through state-based and federal background checks.
The rampant availability of guns, warns Everitt, has the potential to turn any mild argument into a deadly conflict.
It is an issue that conference participants hope that suburban and rural churches will take seriously.
At the conference, a letter was drafted that will be sent to rural and suburban Anabaptist congregations in Southeast Pennsylvania asking for their support in pressing for more effective hand gun legislation, including Myers proposal which he reintroduced last month.
[Mennonite Central Committee  is a development, aid and advocacy organization acting on behalf of a range of Mennonite and other historic peace churches in North America]