Thousands upon thousands of Nashvillians, representing multiple faiths and backgrounds, came together on Tuesday, April 18, to create a three-mile human chain from Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to the Cathedral of the Incarnation to the Tennessee State Capitol, in honor of the victims of The Covenant School shooting and to urge legislators to pass multiple gun safety measures.
Among the thousands who came together were Bishop J. Mark Spalding and several clergy and laity from around the Diocese of Nashville. The Diocese of Knoxville held a similar event simultaneously as they encircled Market Square in downtown Knoxville.
The event was put together by Voices for a Safer Tennessee, a newly-formed, “nonpartisan statewide coalition dedicated to prioritizing gun safety and advocating for common sense gun laws to make communities across Tennessee safer for all of us,” according to the official website, www.safertn.org.
Erin Hafkenschiel Donnelly, whose family are parishioners of Christ the King Church, was one of the founding members of the coalition. She was in a meeting on Wednesday, March 29, two days after the tragic shooting in which six people, including three 9-year-old children, were killed, when she found that she couldn’t focus on the topic at hand.
“I just kept focusing on the school and the families and feeling like we had to do something,” Hafkenschiel Donnelly said. “And one of the things that struck me is the group of women that I’m really close with are all just really incredible working moms that have so much going for them, yet the comments that I kept hearing is they felt really hopeless and there wasn’t anything we could do to create change, and that was a really terrible feeling.”
Recalling podcasts she had been listening to about other groups around the world standing up for various issues, she thought, “If they can do it, then it is possible for us to do something, too.”
Reaching out to a friend, they quickly made a plan and hosted a lunch the very next day for anyone interested in joining the effort. More than 35 people showed up to that meeting.
“It was just an incredibly passionate and talented group of people that were willing to drop what they were doing and volunteer their time to make our communities safer,” Hafkenschiel Donnelly said. “I was completely overwhelmed by their passion and talent.”
From that first meeting, Hafkenschiel Donnelly said, they divided people into committees as they researched gun safety, got a website and social media ready, and started planning the human chain, which had been suggested during the first lunch. They also connected with another group of moms who had attended a rally at the State Capitol on Thursday, March 30, and Voices for a Safer Tennessee was formed with more than 600 people working together.
Many of those members include parents of St. Bernard Academy students, where Hafkenschiel Donnelly’s oldest daughter attends school.
“It has just been this incredibly organic forming of people that are really passionate about this issue, and everyone is bringing their skill sets to the table,” Hafkenschiel Donnelly said. “Everyone is volunteering their time in really incredible ways.”
Letters to the General Assembly
Along with the “Linking Arms for Change” event, Voices for a Safer Tennessee drafted several letters to Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly urging passage of gun safety measures. The various letters came from faith leaders, educational leaders, healthcare professionals, and musicians.
The letters support Gov. Lee’s “investment in school safety and funding” and urge legislators to take the following steps:
• Allow authorities to temporarily remove guns from those who pose a risk to themselves or others by implementing Extreme Risk Laws.
• Keep guns away from dangerous people by requiring background checks on all purchases and closing the background check loophole.
• Stop firearms from falling into the wrong hands by requiring gun owners to provide safe storage and report lost and stolen guns.
Among the more than 120 signatures on the faith leaders letter, which was delivered just a few hours before the event, were the three bishops of Tennessee – Bishop Spalding, Bishop David P. Talley of Memphis, and Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville.
The letter from faith leaders was also signed by the Tennessee Catholic Conference; Father Pat Kibby, senior priest at St. Henry Church; Father Joe McMahon, pastor of Holy Family Church in Brentwood; Father Dexter Brewer, pastor of Christ the King Church; retired Msgr. Michael Johnston; and Father Mark Beckman, pastor of St. Henry.
“One of my first motivations for signing the letter was that I just thought it was a beautiful way of responding to Gov. Lee’s efforts to find solutions,” Father Beckman said. “Then, the second thing is I recently went to a conference on Pope Francis in Davenport, Iowa. One of the speakers there talked about the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and how they came together as friends with peace among them in order to find solutions to complex problems.
“They had to have everyone at the table, and they had to listen to each other because if we left out one person, that one person will be the first to throw the bomb. So it’s a big thing for people to work together in order to find a common solution,” he said. “That thought has come to me many times in the last few weeks. As a society, if we do nothing, then we’re not going to see any change in gun violence, so we have to do something if we want to see a change.”
The letter signed by more than 60 educational leaders also saw Diocese of Nashville representation, including Paul Davis, president of Father Ryan High School, and Leigh Toomey, head of school at St. Bernard Academy.
“This letter of support for common sense gun safety aligns with St. Bernard Academy’s commitment to social justice in the tradition of the Sisters of Mercy who founded our school,” Toomey said. “Today, we operate as a Mercy Education Systems of America school and adhere to five critical concerns of the Sisters of Mercy, one of which is nonviolence.
“It was also important to me to add my name as an educator who is entrusted with and committed to keeping the students in our school’s care safe,” she added. “Our children are our number one priority, and they deserve to go to school, or anywhere for that matter, without fear. They deserve a safer Tennessee.”
Hafkenschiel Donnelly said the response to the event was overwhelming.
“Our original hope was that we would have an event that was too big to ignore,” she said. “Part of what’s been so hard is that there are a couple of really small special interest groups that have been chipping away at our gun safety measures over time, and they are really powerful and have been able to control the narrative on these issues.
“My hope for tonight and for all of our efforts as the Voices for a Safer Tennessee is that we shift the narrative,” Hafkenschiel Donnelly explained. “The majority of Tennesseans believe in the Second Amendment, but they also believe that the same way you have to get a driver’s license to drive a car … as an individual you have to be responsible and safe in how you own and operate a gun.
“It’s not about taking rights away, but focusing on safe and responsible gun ownership,” she concluded.
Chris Donnelly, a parishioner of St. Henry and mother-in-law of Hafkenshiel Donnelly, said she was proud of what her daughter-in-law helped create.
“Honestly, I didn’t see this happening at first, but it is happening and in such a short amount of time. To get thousands of people together, it really is the work of the Holy Spirit,” Donnelly said. “Just from our block (in the three-mile human chain) and to be standing across from the Cathedral is so inspiring.”
“I’ve seen so many of our friends, our Jewish friends, our other Christian friends; we’ve connected with so many different people just in this,” she said. “It’s just amazing. The honking of the horns, the support that people have been giving is amazing.”
Donnelly also noted the importance of Bishop Spalding’s presence and courage as well as those of the other priests in the diocese, including Father Kibby and Father Eric Fowlkes, pastor of the Cathedral, who stood with the bishop.
“The support of the bishop and his determination and his presence is so encouraging to everybody here,” she said. “He is such an example of what Christ wants us to be.”
“My participation was to show my support for the basic points presented in the letter,” Bishop Spalding said. “These proposals would help protect life.”
Father Beckman and Toomey were also among the Catholic leaders who participated in the event.
Father Beckman was part of the group at the Legislative Plaza across the street from the State Capitol, which was the end of the human chain. Also there were several parents of The Covenant School students. Father Beckman joined the Rev. Dr. Herbert Marbury of Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Rabbi Shanna Goldstein Mackler of The Temple in Nashville, and the Rev. Randy Lovelace of Christ Community Church in Franklin in leading the chain in prayer. The prayer was live streamed so people all along the three-mile route could follow along and recite the prayer together.
“God of all faiths, strengthen us to protect our children,” the prayer read. “Use our voices to create a safer Tennessee. We believe change is coming. Amen.”
The event “was an invitation to raise awareness and to get people to start thinking about solutions and talking to each other and listening to one another, and, hopefully, participate in helping to solve the problem,” Father Beckman said. “It really will take a very broad base in the community to resolve these long-term problems that we have, and I’m all about the leaders of different faith traditions praying together for solutions to these challenging problems.
“Being out there was very moving,” he said after the event ended.
“We need to protect everyone from the violence that’s in society, and it just seems so senseless that when we have solutions that we can offer, our government is doing almost nothing to protect not just children, but all people,” said Brian St. Germain, a member of the Blessed Martyr Bishops Byzantine Catholic mission that was recently established, who was part of the chain near the Cathedral. “The harm and the sadness that has been brought to so many people’s lives because of gun violence have got to end now, and so I just wanted to come out and be part of that. I feel it very deeply.
“I hope our government officials see this expression of solidarity of the citizens of Nashville and that it sends a strong message to our local leaders as well as our national leaders that something has to get done,” he said, “and we’re not going to stand for it any longer.”
Donna Tidwell, a parishioner of the Cathedral of the Incarnation, agreed.
“I’m tired of the voices of the people who live in Nashville and the surrounding area being ignored,” Tidwell said. “I’m tired of seeing lobbyists controlling everything that happens in social justice. …
“If people are going to say we are supposed to be a pro-life religion, then they need to be serious about it. Pro-life does not just mean anti-abortion. Pro-life means you care for all of life through all stages,” she added. “This made me very happy to find out we were doing this (participation in the “Linking Arms for Change” event). … As Catholics, these are things we need to be teaching our children – that these things are important, and your ideas are important.”
As Jesus said, things like this are part of loving one another, Tidwell added.
Toomey said “Linking Arms for Change” was the right type of social justice work for students to participate in. St. Bernard Academy brought more than 200 people to join the chain near the hospital, where the victims of The Covenant School shooting were taken.
“It’s truly inspiring to see so many people from so many different backgrounds and with so many different perspectives come together despite their differences to support common sense gun safety measures with one, unified voice,” Toomey said. “It shows that when it comes to keeping our communities safe, we can find common ground.
“This is not a political issue. It’s a public safety and social justice issue,” she added. “That’s why it’s so important that we come together in a nonpartisan way to express support and discuss solutions. It’s my sincere hope that together we can make Tennessee a safer place for our children and for all of us.”
Gallery photos by Katie Peterson, Andy Telli, and Rick Musacchio