COLUMBIA, SC — Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin gathered people of faith Friday for an early-morning roundtable aimed at curbing gun violence and rescuing young people from lives of crime and chaos.
The forum at First Nazareth Baptist Church drew some of the community’s most diligent social justice advocates, including bishops, pastors and lay people who are ready and willing to tackle some of the region’s worst ills.
In his opening remarks, Benjamin said the city had 432 gun crimes reported last year, including five homicides, six sexual assaults, 183 aggravated assaults and 238 robberies.
He is particularly disturbed that so many children are robbed of fulfilling lives because of the violence that permeates their lives.
“I believe we have a significant number of children in America who are raising themselves without the influence of a proper male or female role model,” he said.
The discussion emerged out of a Sunday school class at Washington Street United Methodist Church. It was timed to coincide with the national Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend led by Faiths United, a coalition of nearly 50 denominations and faith-based organizations.
Mel Hart, a member of Brookland Baptist Church on Sunset Boulevard, lamented that modern life has created too much isolation in communities, which allows domestic violence, child abuse or neglect and other crime to fester.
Add to that the prevalence of illegal firearms and random gunfire in places such as Fire Points, Eau Claire and the North Beltline area, and that leaves people either hiding in their homes or discouraged about the future.
“The faith community needs to drill down deeper,” he said. “The faith community has to be the conduit. The real thing is we don’t talk to people anymore.”
Most participants agreed that strengthening fatherhood initiatives, encouraging civility and providing strong role models for children who now find companionship in gang participation is vital.
But Pat D’Anna, a businessman and member of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church on Clemson Avenue, said he doesn’t believe his congregation or other faith organizations are doing enough by simply inviting at-risk kids to Sunday school and hosting them for after-school programs.
“We need to try to find these kids when they are younger… to let them know they are a part of something 24-7.” As his youngest child prepares to head off to college, D’Anna said he and his wife already are contemplating how they can make a difference in other children’s lives.
Emily Cooper, an Eau Claire activist and United Methodist Church member who coordinated the roundtable with the mayor’s office, said she believes Benjamin is sincere in his desire to expand on Friday’s discussion and turn ideas, which ranged from a march against gun violence to preaching on the issue from the pulpit, into civic action.
“When he first talked to me about it, he was concerned about guns in relation to gang violence,” Cooper said. “I think he sees that tie-in very strongly.”
She said the meeting “may give pastors the strength to preach about this from the pulpit, to preach about what Scripture says about this subject.”
Benjamin said he continues to work with police and explore grant opportunities to turn the lives of young people around and thwart the scourge of illegal firearms.
Benjamin said he has not joined the organization, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition fighting for tougher local, state and federal gun regulations, but he said Friday that is because the organization is largely run by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
“I don’t take directions from Michael Bloomberg,” Benjamin said.