Glen Ridge church member, East Orange schools admin marches to end gun violence

Photo Courtesy of Rhonda Watson
Christ Episcopal Church member Rhonda Watson attends a gun control rally in Washington, D.C., last month.

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Inspired by her pastor’s words following the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 elementary school children and two teachers, a member of Christ Episcopal Church of Bloomfield and Glen Ridge took part in a March for Our Lives rally on June 11 to end gun violence. 

Rhonda Watson, an East Orange School District administrator, participated in the Washington, D.C., rally with a contingent of members from the Episcopal Diocese of Newark together with Episcopals and Lutherans from throughout the state. The group sent two busloads from New Jersey to the rally. According to a published news account, more than 40,000 people attended the rally on the National Mall. 

“It was organized in response to the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde,” Watson said. “It is time to say enough is enough.” 

The event, she said, was more of a rally than a march. Speakers included Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and David Hogg, a survivor of the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., which killed 14 students and three educators.

“We did hear, at the rally, how we must remain committed with our politicians for reform and restrictions, including background checks and a prohibition of 18-year-olds or younger from buying a gun.”

The shooter in Uvalde was 18 years old.

The March for Our Lives rally occurred two weeks before President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan bill into law that would prohibit certain gun sales, including those to individuals convicted of domestic abuse. It will also allow access to juvenile records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Watson thought the rally may have helped to convince some lawmakers to pass the gun control bill. 

“People at the march were saying that this time it was different,” she said. “We thought that because of the sheer outrage from the two events, in Uvalde and Buffalo. We didn’t want to see this happen again without our trying to do something to prevent it, to keep our schools safe, our supermarkets safe, without doing the best we can. A lot of people feel access to guns is out of control.” 

Ten people were killed May 14 in a mass shooting at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket in a predominantly black neighborhood. March for Our Lives, a grassroots organization advocating stricter gun control measures, cited five main reasons, according to its website, for gun violence: gun glorification, armed supremacy, political apathy and corruption, poverty, and a national mental health crisis.

On May 29, five days after the Uvalde shooting, the Rev. Diana Wilcox delivered a sermon at Christ Episcopal Church that inspired Watson. It was titled “Chapter 2, again.”

So soon following the Buffalo mass shooting, Wilcox said, the country faced another shooting tragedy, this time in an elementary school. She read out the names of the children, ages 9, 10 and 11, who were killed.

“I want to say before I continue that over these past several tumultuous days a heaviness of heart has overwhelmed many of us as though a riptide is drawing us under,” Wilcox said.

It was impossible, she said, to escape the tragedies with the incessant media coverage. She advised her congregants to turn off the TV and recalled a poem from her sermon the previous Sunday. The poem was “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters,” by Portia Nelson. 

The especially short poem is about a woman who always falls down into the same hole on the same street until one day she decides to walk down another street. 

“But today, we seem to be once again, like some sort of strange repeating nightmare, still in Chapter 2 when it comes to mass shootings in this country,” Wilcox said. 

In Chapter 2, the woman walks down the same street, pretends not to see the hole and falls in again.

It is at times like this, Wilcox said, that she likes to think of the Rev. Fred Rogers, of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Rogers said his parents taught him, if ever he became frightened, to look for the people who are willing to help others. Wilcox said that while prayer is essential to a person of faith, inaction is silent complicity with people who commit crimes.

“Yes, pray and hold those affected in your heart and mind as you change what is to what should be,” she said.

Watson said she was compelled to attend the rally because several friends were distraught over the recent shootings.

“I’m a public educator and administrator, and I was distraught over the Uvalde shooting,” she said. “I felt I had to have my voice heard. We have to protect our schools from gun violence.”