Recently I had a chance to speak with well-known community activist Shane Caliborne, a Christian working in Philadelphia to reverse the city’s high gun violence rate. By combining his passion for healthy food access, community involvement, and peace, he is part of a powerful movement called The Simple Way that is shaping the city’s future from one of despair to one of hope. Read my interview with Shane to discover how you can help make a positive impact in your own neighborhood.
Jana Melpolder: As a community activist in Philadelphia, describe the work that you do.
Shane Claiborne: We answer the door and we hang out on the street, and everything for us has been born out of relationships here in the neighborhood. I’ve lived in Kensington which statistically is one of our most economically-devastated neighborhoods in Pennsylvania. We’ve moved in here 20 years ago after a group of homeless families were facing an eviction [as they were] living in an abandoned cathedral. And that’s what really started things and everything else just sort of bubbled up out of that.
In the early days, we spend a lot of time giving out food and helping people go to detox and we still do all those things. But Dr. Martin Luther King was right, I think, when he said, “We’re called to be a good Samaritan but after you lift so many people out of the ditch, you start to say maybe the road to Jericho needs to be rethought”. So we’re also asking fundamental questions about some of those things that are unhealthy in our neighborhood, our city and in our world. That brings us to care about gun violence: when [hundreds of] folks are getting killed in Philly and 10,000 around the country; dozens of schools going bankrupt [and] at the same time schools in the suburbs are getting smartboards and ipads. We’ve also got to ask, “Who owns the pond and who polluted the pond”?
In an average week we do morning prayer, an afterschool program for the kids, neighbors that are sharing food with dozens of families that need it, community gardens that are going [and] murals that we paint.
JM: What are the differences that you see? How has greater food access revitalized the communities?
SC: There’s a lot of talk about the nutritional desert and the food desert [and] I think a real connection between a lot of these things weave together. As one of the guys in the neighborhood said, “It’s easier to get a gun in our neighborhood than it is to get a good salad”. These things are kind of related. I studied Sociology so when we lose our connection to life and to the earth and creation, it allows us to assimilate more to a culture of death and destruction. So when we garden, when kids connect to the wonder of life and creation, they value it more. It’s a very spiritual thing to us.
When we garden in the concrete and to see kids, sometimes for the first time, pick a carrot out of the ground. One of the kids came to my house [saying] “You gotta see this!” He pointed out a firefly and [he] was like, “What is that”? And I said “That’s a really creative day for God.” That sense of wonder and fascination is revitalizing and the more that we do that in our neighborhood the more we see it come to life.
JM: Are the children taking care of the gardens themselves? Do you delegate responsibility for individual gardens? How does it work?
SC: We’re a very close-knit neighborhood. We set out to start an intentional community and we ended up, really, a village. We’re doing it together [with] neighbors that are going to regular workshops, kids that are planting trees. We got some garden beds that we plant them out, and some that are community gardens that we rotate the crops with everything.
Our newest project was a 1,500 gallon tank with 1,000 tilapia underground in the basement of the house that burnt down. On the top of that, above ground, we’ve got a greenhouse, so that fish water circulates. There’s several of us that take care of that together in the neighborhood and the kids are often a part of that as well.
JM: That’s great! So how did the idea evolve of making garden tools out of old guns?
SC: Our original idea on that comes out of this beautiful vision from the prophets Micah and Isaiah. God says, “My people will beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning hooks.” and “Nation will not rise against nation.” and “People will study war no more”. It goes on to say that people will not live with fear. That kind of view of the world towards peace doesn’t begin with the nations or the politicians, but it begins with the people.
We said, if people just refuse to kill, if we start turning our instruments of death into tools for life, it’s incredible vision that has the capacity to move the world. We see the violence [and] we see the gunshots; we have almost one homicide a day. So that culture of death is something we are trying to reimagine.
One of our earliest murals that sadly burnt down in a fire five years ago – there was a mural [where] we took plastic guns and swords and we melted them down into a plow. That was on our wall. Over the years that kind of vision has evolved into taking real weapons and turning them into garden tools. Our first time that we did that was on the 10th anniversary of September 11th. We welded an AK-47 and then turned that into a shovel and a rake. That was one of our first.
Momentum has just built. Now we have some blacksmiths that are from out west. When they heard that after September 11th [that] some of the metal from the World Trade Center was recycled to build a warship, they thought “My Gosh it’s so heartbreaking” – all of the antithesis of what the prophets were foretelling. They were inspired to start what they called “Raw Tools” which is “turn war around”. They started that vision and so we collaborated at [a] conference and we did a live weapons conversion there of an AK-47 that was donated. The weapon’s owner was just so tired of the recent massacres and gun violence that he said “I want to donate my old weapon to be dismantled to become something that would give life instead of contribute to the patterns of gun violence.” So that AK-47 was turned into three garden trowels; one of them we’ll be getting ready to use in our garden. We’ve actually made 43 garden tools out of every AK-47.
JM: Your community’s work is very powerful. How can this all make an impact beyond your city?
SC: We just had a meeting this morning in Philadelphia which has become a coalition of folks that are really excited by this vision. We are hoping that in a couple months to host a whole weekend of weapon conversion. Also, maybe from the streets of Philly people [can] bring their own guns or weapons. Some of whom may come out of prison. We’re going to invite people to come to welding and blacksmithing workshops where we’ll have our welders and blacksmiths come. That’s an idea we are working with. It’s pretty exciting! There’s a lot of energy around it.
I think what we see is the possibility of changing the patterns of violence. With gun violence, murders, increasing wars and militarism, you just think of all that and you think [about] what is this moment for people of God who try to follow after Jesus, the Prince of Peace, it could mean that we should have a different imagination than the patterns of violence and war.
JM: That’s so inspiring and makes such a big difference. Grassroots groups like yours really make a difference just by starting from the ground up.
SC: Absolutely. There’s a symbolic side of it – an absolute, real side of this, too. A lot of my passion around [the] gun issue is when a 19 year-old kid was killed on our block. At that moment it was very clear to me that this wasn’t just about rhetoric and gun control, this was about when real children and real families that are affected by avenues of violence. So we started vigils outside of the most notorious gun shops. These guns shops had over 200 guns used in violent crimes. One of these shops actually shut down. In the end that was one of our worst gun shops. Our goal is to have more responsible businesses that don’t contribute to the violence. Our goals aren’t to make enemies but to realize that everybody is affected by this whether it’s police officers or a baby that was killed by gun violence.
You just look at that and go, “My gosh, we as a country – can’t we do better? Can we get our gun violence under control?”