Two days before Thanksgiving, a delegation of local clergy — Christians, Jews, Muslims, a total of 21 in all — walked into U. S. Sen. Bob Corker's Chattanooga office for a scheduled meeting to talk about two things.
And gun violence.
"Today, we are here because gun safety is a spiritual and faith issue," Rabbi Susan Tendler, of B'nai Zion Congregation, told the senator.
Yes, a faith issue. Gun violence mangles, damages and destroys human life, from gang-bangers to Vegas concertgoers to Texas parishioners to American schoolchildren to women threatened by drunk and abusive boyfriends. Since we are all made in the image of God, believers are then called to fight against whatever violates God's creation.
Like gun violence, which plays a role in our worst tragedies: suicide, domestic violence, mass and school shootings, urban and rural violence, domestic terrorism.
"Our local community here has suffered from tremendous gun violence for a very long time," Jonathan Thomas, senior pastor of World Restoration Center, told Corker. "We ministers have had to deal with many funerals and burying the young and old and seeing babies in caskets. We are constantly asking God for the words to comfort their loved ones. It has been very trying for us at times to make sense out of the nonsense."
Convened in the days after the Charlottesville, Va., violence, the interfaith delegation, with 33 members total, believes that the voice of justice must be spoken in love and invitation. Not to shout down the enemy, but to truth-tell and reconcile.
"Without that, there is no way forward," said Clay Thomas, of Rivermont Presbyterian Church, where the delegation first met.
It's not a predictable bunch.
Some delegation pastors have been victims of gun violence.
Who was there?
Interfaith clergy who met with Sen. Corker included the Rev. Brian Allen Sr., New Seasons Christian Ministry; the Rev. Tom Banks, Ashland Terrace Christian Church; the Rev. Laura Becker, Northminster Presbyterian; Pastor Matt Busby, Camp House; the Rev. J. David Carter, Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul; Doug Fairbanks, First-Centenary UMC; the Rev. Brandon Gilvin, First Christian Church; the Rev. Jonathan Hyde, First Christian Church; Basaam Issa, Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga; the Rev. Eric Johnson, First Church of the Nazarene; Rabbi Craig Lewis, Mizpah Congregation; the Rev. Charles Neal, First-Centenary UMC; the Rev. Zach Nyein, Grace Episcopal Church; the Rev. Jerome Rogan, Transforming Faith Baptist Church; Rabbi Susan Tendler, Congregation B’nai Zion; Clay Thomas, Rivermont Presbyterian Church; the Rev. Jonathan Thomas, World Restoration Church; the Rev. Ann Weeks, Episcopal clergy; the Rev. Brad Whitaker, St. Paul’s Episcopal; the Rev. Scott Williamson, Pilgrim Congregational Church; the Rev. Candace Worth, New Hope Presbyterian.
Others own guns.
Others would never.
Some are evangelical and conservative. Others, progressive. Some pastor wealthy congregations. Others, impoverished ones.
And that's the beautiful point — the diversity of this delegation represents a growing, larger delegation of Americans seeking common ground on gun violence.
"Gone are the days when this is a partisan issue," said Thomas. "This is not about one side winning. The circle of support for gun reform is widening."
The delegation, specifically the Rev. Doug Fairbanks of First-Centenary United Methodist Church, asked Corker for two things:
» Co-sponsor bipartisan legislation, introduced Nov. 16 in Congress, that would strengthen our national system of safeguards by putting more emphasis on states and federal agencies to upload information to the National Instant Background Check System. (The Texas church shooter was court martialed by the Air Force for a domestic violence charge; the information was never reported, which would have made acquiring guns more difficult.)
» Sponsor legislation that would undo the Dickey Amendment, passed in the mid-'90s, that prevents the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun-related deaths and injuries by removing federal funding. (How can the government propose ways to prevent gun deaths if it can't research gun violence?)
Delegates say Corker, who was unavailable for comment last week, was responsive and inviting, offering to meet back with the delegation within days.
"If this legislation prevents one mass shoot or saves one precious life, it'll be worth the effort," Thomas said afterward.
For Thomas, the meeting with Corker was a watershed moment.
"I've been working on this issue for 10 years," said Thomas. "This is the first time I felt like I was heard and listened to and understood."
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.