NASHVILLE, Tenn. OSV News – Thousands upon thousands of Nashvillians, representing multiple faiths and backgrounds, came together on 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 that 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 members are parishioners of Christ the King Church, was one of the founding members of the coalition. She was in a meeting on 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 told the Tennessee Register, Nashville's diocesan newspaper. "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 Tennessee Capitol 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."
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, health care professionals and musicians.
The letters support Lee's "investment in school safety and funding" and urge legislators to take several steps including allowing authorities to temporarily remove guns from those who pose a risk to themselves or others by implementing "extreme risk laws; require background checks on all purchases and closing the background check loophole; and mandate 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, as well as The Tennessee Catholic Conference..
A separate letter signed by educational leaders included Nashille diocesan educators, like Leigh Toome, head of school at St. Bernard Academy, who said, "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."
Chris Donnelly, a parishioner of St. Henry and mother-in-law of Hafkenshiel Donnelly, said she was proud of her daughter-in-law Erin for helping create Voices for a Safer Tennessee.
"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 told the Tennessee Register. "Just from our block (in the three-mile human chain) and to be standing across from the cathedral is so inspiring."
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 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."
The Rev. Randy Lovelace of Christ Community Church in Franklin in leading the chain in prayer. The prayer was livestreamed 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 Mark Beckman, St. Henry's pastor, who was among five Catholic priests who signed the faith leaders letter.
"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," he said.
Brian St. Germain 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."
St. Germain is a member of the Blessed Martyr Bishops Byzantine Catholic mission that was recently established in Nashville.
"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."
Katie Peterson is a reporter with the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.