Suzanne Verge-Peak, president of the L.A. chapter of the Brady Campaign to prevent gun violence, was the first to ring the gold bell — a hard pull in memory of brother Peter Verge. Peter was 18, she 15, when he was shot and killed two weeks before Christmas in 1978, just a mile from their Santa Monica home.
Stepping forward, a gray-haired woman in a jean jacket and pants said, “I ring the bell for my daughter Wendy, who was murdered. She was in the prime of her life. She died in New Mexico, where she was raised. It’s been a while. But coming together with the group here brings it all …,” she struggled to finish, but couldn’t.
“I’ll do it for you, Bobbi,” said the older man standing beside her. “Bobbi’s my wife. Wendy was a firefighter paramedic, age 41, when she was murdered in a carjacking.”
During the next 15 minutes, 10 more women and two men rang the bell at the “Healing Our City” interfaith prayer service on the stone steps of St. Monica Church’s patio after the 8 a.m. Mass on June 7. The liturgy of the Eucharist and service were sponsored by the three Catholic parishes in Santa Monica — St. Monica, St. Anne and St. Clement.
One woman rang the bell for her brother, Leonard, who died heroically trying to save his wife from gun violence, leaving behind six kids. Another rang it in “loving memory” of her uncle, a schizophrenic who was able to buy a gun and shoot himself.
“For my great-grandfather, who I learned committed suicide years and years ago,” the second man brave enough to approach the bell explained. “It’s a family secret, and I only found out indirectly through a long-time friend of my mother when I was in a little village in Mexico.” He paused, before saying, “For him,” yanking strongly on the white cord.
A third man rang the bell for a former neighbor who was just 19 when he was killed in Vietnam. A woman with a deep voice rang it for her cousin, Peter, who died in a drive-by shooting in Pico Rivera.
But perhaps the most poignant rings came for some of the six victims gunned down and slain on June 7, 2013. Margarita Gomez, 68, collected cans, bottles and other recyclables on the campus of Santa Monica College. Marcela Franco, 26, had just bought her books for a summer school class she needed. Her dad, 68-year-old Carlos, had been a groundskeeper at the community college for 22 years. All three were murdered at SMC by 23-year-old John Zawahri, dressed in black military-like fatigues and armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle and .44 caliber revolver.
“This is to honor my dear Margarita, who was killed a year ago,” said a female bell-ringer.
A younger woman simply lamented, “To my best friend, Marcela Franco.”
‘Hope for a better world’
After the emotional bell ringing, St. Monica’s pastor spoke to about 100 people at the outdoor service. “So my brothers and sisters, we gather with a heavy heart for the loss of those we’ve loved,” said Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson. “But we also gather today in a spirit of renewal and reform, and a hope for a better world.”
He pointed out how Pope Francis has suggested the metaphor that a church in any community is like a battlefield hospital — a place where the wounded and hurt can seek refuge and restoration.
“All of us gathering together here are in need,” he said. “We’re in need of healing. We’re in need of remembering. We’re in need of making a change in this world, a change that will affect the lives and hearts of so many of our brothers and sisters who walk with us today.”
The Rev. Ruett Foster of the Community Bible Church in Culver City reported he’d rung the bell for the violent death of his own son, Evan, who was slain in December 1997. The seven-year-old had gone to the local park to pick up his soccer trophy and also sign up for the intermural basketball league with his mother and baby brother. Caught in a local gang’s gunfire, the boy was mortally wounded, while his younger sibling received a serious eye injury that would require multiple surgeries.
“It hurts deeply for me today,” Rev. Foster confided. “My heart is poor. But God is greater than all of this. And if we can see things the way God sees things, we’ll be the better for it. But we have to love one another. We have to care about one another. Interdenominationally. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. Believing in Christ, God being our God Almighty, is what matters….
“Our loved ones are precious, and we have to be their voices,” the cleric stressed barely above a whisper. “Never let them go. Stand strong. Lock arms. Lock hearts. We must do that. We must do that.”
Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom, a progressive reform synagogue in Santa Monica, said he couldn’t think of a better place to be on a Shabbat than right here. Why? Because the Sabbath was supposed to be a day of pause and reflection.
“And this is a week that we need to do more to prevent gun violence,” he urged, “when we need to do more to keep this incredibly hateful and harmful technology out of the hands of very vulnerable human beings.”
The rabbi pointed out that one of the 613 commandments in the Jewish Bible is to pursue justice. In fact, the ancient Hebrew Scripture proclaims “Justice, justice you shall pursue” because saying it once isn’t enough.
“All the other commandments, we’re either told to do something or not to do something,” he said. “This one we’re not told that. We’re told to pursue justice. It’s always slightly out of our reach. It’s always pulling us along. Always forcing us to do better. Always saying that there is more — that the minute we think we understand everything and have concluded that we are victorious, there’s more. We’re never done.”
With a guitar, Rabbi Comess-Daniels led the people in singing the civil rights’ anthem “We Shall Overcome,” changing words in the second verse to: “No guns in our hands. No guns in our hands. No guns in our hands, today. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe. We shall overcome someday.”
After, the loved ones of victims killed by gun violence were asked to step forward again — this time to release homing white doves and receive personal blessings from the three religious leaders.