ELGIN – When her oldest son Kenneth was shot to death in a random act of gun violence in 2005, Rev. Brenda Mitchell called her younger son, who was serving in Afghanistan.
Kenneth had just taken his younger brother Kevin to the airport when he went to go serve in Afghanistan, Mitchell said.
“A week later, I had to call Kevin to come home and to bury his brother in a free country,” Mitchell said. “It was a random act of violence.”
Mitchell, a member of Everytown Survivor Network, spoke to a gathering of 65 about her 31-year-old son’s senseless death – and her dedication to fighting the nation’s gun violence at a candlelight vigil at Christ the Lord Lutheran Church in Elgin Sept. 5.
“This is something that is in epidemic proportions and I could not afford not to address it,” Mitchell said. "It won’t happen to us. It will never happen to us. I never thought it would happen to me.”
Mitchell said she stepped down from a 10-year elected position to honor her son’s memory and to speak out about gun violence and the trauma it causes.
“When I was in Washington, and I was speaking before the legislature,” Mitchell said. “And I have to ask the question, ‘What do I go home and tell my husband, who served his country? He sent one son to serve his country and lost his other son in a free country? What do you have me to go home and to say to my husband?’”
Mitchell said the lives of trauma survivors like herself are still worth living “if we can change the life of someone else in the communities in which we live in.”
“Let our voices go forth and act on the common decency we are called to and ask our government to be accountable,” Mitchell said. “We are burying our children in America."
'A national public health crisis'
Those attending prayed, sang, shared lit candles and also heard other speakers, including Laurie Huske, board president of National Alliance on Mental Illness Kane County North, Jacki Bakker of the Fox River Valley Initiative, and Rev. Maureen O’Connor, pastor of Calvary Episcopal Church in Lombard.
Huske said every time a mass shooting happens, statements about those with mental illness serve to perpetuate the stigma against them.
“Gun violence is a national public health crisis that impacts everyone,” Huske said, reading from the national organization’s statement.
“In the U.S., it is easier to get a gun than mental health care. It should be easy – not hard – for people to get the mental health treatment they need. Mental health conditions are common around the globe, yet no other country comes close to the number of mass shootings our country experiences,” Huske said.
Huske said after the last mass shooting, Pres. Trump started a call to reopen mental institutions and called those with mental illness “monsters.”
“Words matter, Mr. President. ‘These people’ are our friends, neighbors, children, spouses. They’re not 'monsters,' 'the mentally ill' or 'crazy people' – they’re us,” Huske said. “Talking about re-institutionalization only further marginalizes and isolates the one in five people with mental illness.”
Bakker, from Fox River Valley Initiative spoke about “Do Not Stand Idly By,” a movement that addresses gun safety by having gun manufacturers clean up their distribution and innovate on safety with gun locks and limited magazines.
Bakker said 132 communities across the U.S. have signed on to request information on what gun manufacturers are doing to make safety a priority.
Kane, DuPage, Lake and Cook counties have all signed on, she said.
“We’re asking gun companies to take responsibility for their product,” Bakker said. “A gun safety consortium is a vehicle for municipalities and states to use their combined purchasing power to advance the cause. The U.S. government buys 40% of the guns for the military and police.”
'We don't have an option ... not to act'
O’Connor said when Christians pray for the Kingdom of God to come – it comes as Christ’s body in the world.
“Kenneth was part of that body,” O’Connor said. “The 30,000 who die every year from gun violence are part of that body we don’t know. We don’t know if the life we’re losing is the person coming up with the next cure for cancer. … We don’t have an option, as Christ followers, not to act. We follow the one who ended up on the cross.”
Referring to the first song the group sang that night, “Within Our Darkest Night,” O’Connor said, “I think we are within our darkest night.”
“Never in a million years would I be scared to send my kids to school in the suburbs,” O’Connor said. “We are called to be the hands and feet of God. We don’t have an option not to act."