Gun violence is the leading cause of mortality among young black men and the county needs to treat it as a public health issue, according to Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department.
“How do we help to prevent this?” Hacker asked. “And how do we help communities to heal because the impact of this kind of violence is really like post-traumatic stress in many of our communities.”
She found an ally in the local Christian community.
“We’re interested in getting these messages out in many different places and being able to connect with communities, and we really saw the faith based community as an incredible touchpoint,” Hacker said.
The Health Department worked with Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network and Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania to create a packet that helps clergy address the issue with their congregations. It includes statistics from the health department that can be included in church bulletins and ways to connect the issue to scripture.
“That’s what we tried to do in the production of the preventing gun violence resource,” said Liddy Barlow executive minister of Christian Associates. “To help clergy connect ancient texts to contemporary issues so that in the pews, people’s consciousness will be sparked by this and they’ll hear our message that will really change lives.”
She said Christians possess the tools needed to prevent gun violence.
“We have a book that tells us to beat swords into ploughshares,” Barlow said. “So I think ultimately our faith is our primary tool to use in entering into this conversation.”
Dr. Helen Blier, director of continuing education at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said pastors want to help change their communities and see seminary education as a gateway into helping professions.
“They have a vision for how they want things to be in the world – something more humane, more just, more good – and the ministry training becomes a mechanism for it,” Blier said.
She said they hope the pamphlet will give ministers who sometimes feel overwhelmed by the violence in their communities a step-by-step guide to take the first steps to improve the communities they serve.
The packet also shares the regrets of people who committed crimes in the past.
“We’re trying to give perspectives from multiple communities affected by gun violence — the health care community, the perpetrator, the victim, the bystander, the communities that surround all of these folks – and give people multiple angles of entry to what is ostensibly a very complex issue,” Blier said.
The issue doesn’t just affect the inner city, Hacker said. She said the number of murders in the county was about the same as the number in the city last year, which hasn’t been the case historically. The pamphlet is just one of several measures the Health Department is taking to address the issue.
“This is part of a much bigger puzzle,” Hacker said.
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