If you were planning a prayer vigil for victims of violence — locally, nationally and across the globe — and planning to conduct it at the United Nations’ New York headquarters, it’s almost certain you’d want to use Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd’s sculpture Non Violence, an oversized Colt .357 Magnum handgun with its barrel twisted into a knot, as your backdrop.
This was the Rev. Howard Dotson’s driving vision for his noontime prayer vigil Feb. 20. And, a la Reuterswärd’s gun barrel, Dotson’s prayer vigil would come with a twist: an invitation to the UN diplomats to pray for the end to violence in the United States.
“Usually we are asked to pray for an end to the violence in places like Syria, Iraq and Somalia,” Dotson said. “For us to ask diplomats from these and other countries to pray for us (here in the States,) represents a paradigm shift of humility for the United States.”
But in order for his prayer vigil to proceed, Dotson, the pastor of Spanish Spring Presbyterian Church in Sparks, Nev., had to execute a paradigm shift of his own. Hoping to pray near Reuterswärd’s statue, construction at the site prompted a Plan B: gathering on Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, just across from the UN.
In a way, the move to Hammarskjold Plaza, recently reborn as a “vest-pocket park,” proved to be a more appropriate venue. Its bucolic setting better memorializes the hopeful tenure of the UN’s second secretary general. Hammarskjold was killed in September 1961 when his plane crashed in what is now Zambia while flying to work out a ceasefire between Katangese troops led by Moise Tshombe and non-combatant UN forces. Later that year, Hammarskjold became the only honoree posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite a New York City parks department ban on open flames on the plaza, which prevented the assembled from lighting candles, Dotson was buoyed by the noontime temperature in the mid-40s, melting the string of cold temperatures, and the sun breaking out from behind the gray clouds of previous weeks.
“God shined on us,” he said.
“Those who needed to be there were there,” is how Dotson described the attendees. Among them were diplomatic personnel from Germany and the Netherlands, who appreciated a particular sentiment printed on the fliers he handed out. Dotson borrowed them from the religious service for the most recent International Day of Peace:
“In the 1960s, we sang We Shall Overcome for the civil rights movement, and Cesar Chavez led the farm workers in singing De Colores. As we face this unrelenting epidemic of gun violence in America, the song for this challenging time is This is My Song (Finlandia.)”
Dotson pointed out that we should remember the forgotten victims of gun violence — those “walking through a dark valley without a shepherd” — the innocent members of the shooter’s family.
He’s seen this during pastorates in Omaha, St. Paul and Los Angeles, where it can be extra-painful for the families of slain gang members who must often wait 10 days for the wheels of bureaucracy to release their loved one’s body.
He understands why many people feel the need to rage against the perpetrators of gun violence; when a shooter is taken out, that rage is directed at the shooter’s parents and family members.
“They are often ostracized and/or become the objects of community scorn and ridicule,” Dotson said.
He’s witnessing this right now at home in Sparks where, on the morning of Oct. 21, 12-year old Jose Reyes Jr. woke up and went off to join his fellow seventh-graders at Sparks Middle School.
Except on that morning, he was carrying his parents’ semi-automatic handgun.
He shot and killed Michael Landsberry, a well-liked teacher.
He shot and wounded two other 12-year-olds.
He end the shooting spree by turning the gun on himself.
“(The family members’) post-traumatic stress (from the shooting incident) is often compounded by the shooter’s death — frequently by suicide — of the shooter: their son, their daughter, their brother, their sister,” Dotson said, adding that “this mental anguish can lead to suicide among some family members while others turn their significant grief into substance abuse.”
Dotson estimated that he’s tried to bring comfort to hurting families on 50 separate occasions. In Sparks, he’s reached out to the Reyes family, making the effort to eat in the family’s restaurant several times a month.
And he continues to pray for the end to violence.
He might be on to something.
On the day of his prayer vigil, the political turmoil in Ukraine generated the bloodiest day in its capital city of Kiev.
On the morning after the prayer vigil, both sides agreed to a ceasefire; the upheaval’s violence has subsided but the political situation remains tense.
Answer to a prayer? No one knows the mind of God.
But it’s evidence enough for Dotson to continue praying for peace.
Jim Nedelka is a radio journalist, a Presbyterian Ruling Elder and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.