A girl holds a sign reflecting the urgency of the demand for a change in gun laws at a rally of students and adults at the Tallahassee, Florida, state capitol on Feb. 21. Photo by the Rev. Andy Oliver.
Survivors of the latest school shooting are “formidable” and will be “change agents,” said an elementary school teacher who accompanied 95 students as they faced Florida lawmakers to demand an end to the killings.
“They are not playing by political rules because they don’t know political rules. They have data in their heads and passion in their hearts,” said Catherine Kuhns, a fourth-grade teacher at Country Hills Elementary who went on the Feb. 21 trip to Tallahassee, the state capital. The elementary school is just a quarter of a mile from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Many of the teenagers at the high school were first little ones in her classroom, explained Kuhns, a member of First United Methodist Church in nearby Coral Springs.
“I will never be able to impart to anyone how amazing these kids were. They are unshakeable, they are passionate, they have done their homework.”
The sign held by a demonstrator at a rally for stricter gun laws at the state capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, references the biblical verse from Isaiah 11:6. The Feb. 21 demonstration occurred after 17 people died in a mass shooting in Parkland. Photo by the Rev. Andy Oliver.
Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Conference has started the 5,000 letters campaign asking United Methodists in the conference to contact state and federal government officials and urge them to seek legislation that will curb gun violence.
“I call upon the followers of Jesus to speak for those whose voices are silenced, and to speak for our children and grandchildren. What if, across Florida and even our connection, we were able to collect and send 5,000 letters?” he posted.
Several United Methodist pastors and laity were at the Tallahassee rally on Feb. 21.
“It was the student’s moment,” said the Rev. Andy Oliver, pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church, Saint Petersburg, Florida, who also attended the Tallahassee rally. When religious leaders spoke, he said they told Florida legislators, “When you don’t allow debate on a bill, when you drop responsibility to take care of the gun problem, you are not doing the will of God.”
Oliver said he felt compelled to support the thousands of students who attended the rally.
Speaking of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, he said, “I think it is incredible in their moment of grief when they have every excuse in the world to stay under the covers — which is where I would be — they are out in public spotlight speaking and remembering their friends. Each one was so incredible.”
On Feb. 14, those students were attending school as they would on any ordinary day when police said 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz used an AR-15-style rifle to kill 17 people and wound 14 more. The students have changed from typical high schoolers to advocates for societal change, who are determined to end school shootings.
Kuhns chaperoned a group of nine young people.
“Within this group of nine, one lost a best friend, one watched a teacher shot, one witnessed three classmates take fatal bullets. One was in panic mode because she could not reach her sister in the freshman building. That sister survived, but was the one who saw three classmates shot before her eyes. Each lost friends and faith in current laws. Each students' lives will never be the same,” Kuhns wrote in a Facebook post.
Kuhns said at one point one of the officials asked, “How many school shootings have we had this year?” Then he added, “We haven’t had that many.”
One of the students spoke up, she noted, and responded, “We are averaging one school shooting a week in 2018. Twenty-seven individuals have died this year alone, 17 have come from my school.”
“They were very respectful, but they corrected them (the lawmakers),” Kuhns said.
Governor Rick Scott was at Kuhns’ church the Sunday after the shooting.
Kuhns greeted him and told him she had been a teacher since 1975 but nothing had prepared her for the conversation she had to have with her 9- and 10-year-old students on Feb. 15.
“I told him, ‘No teacher should ever have to do that again. No student should ever have to fear for their lives in school,’” she said. “’And, by the way, I will be seeing you very soon.’”
She kept that promise when she walked into the governor’s office on Feb. 21. He remembered her, she added.
Kuhns will be retiring after this year and she has found her next life’s passion.
“I am so sick of this violence,” she said. “I am over this, over man’s inhumanity over man, I am just over it. When it comes breathing down your neck it is just too dang close.”
What does The United Methodist Church say about gun violence? The Book of Resolutions: Our Call to End Gun Violence spells out the church's position.