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Zoo shooting symptom of crisis say faith leaders

BY PJ HELLER | Washington, DC | April 25, 2000

Gunfire which erupted at the National Zoo in the nation's capital on April 24, 2000, leaving seven children wounded, is symptomatic of much deeper problems in society that need to be addressed, according to some faith leaders.

"There is a reality that in many of our cities there are issues -- not just of violence -- but of poverty, of failing educational systems, all kinds of social and economic issues that diminish the quality of life," said Lynn Bergfalk, senior minister at Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Washington. "And it seems that the larger world only takes notice when it spills over into some kind of highly public, visible event."

While decrying the violence which erupted Monday afternoon at the zoo, one of Washington's top tourist attractions, Bergfalk said the public was missing the bigger picture.

"What we need to recognize is there are broader issues . . . and we need to be concerned about addressing the needs of young people in urban areas," he said. "We need to develop the kinds of communities, the kinds of quality of life, that address these issues at the root level and not just respond emotionally when there's a crisis that captures the public attention."

Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a consortium of 36 congregations in the District of Columbia, said he hoped there will be a "silver lining" to come out of this latest shooting incident, with political leaders willing to enact gun control legislation "that will have real meaning."

"We need more state and federal assistance to keep handguns our of the hands of youth," Lynch said.

He said the religious community in DC has long supported strong handgun control measures. He said such legislation will take "political will" and will only happen when "there's enough public outrage" at the violence that has been occurring around the nation.

Police said the shooting apparently was sparked by a clash inside the zoo between two rival groups of young people, about 16 or 17 years old. The confrontation escalated into bottle throwing across Connecticut Avenue outside the zoo's main gate. Gunfire then erupted.

"They started throwing bottles back and forth and then one pulled out a gun and fired into the crowd," Washington D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey said.

It was not clear whether those wounded were involved in the fighting or were innocent bystanders. The wounded were between the ages of 11 and 16. They included an 11-year-old who was shot in the head and a 12-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy, both hospitalized.

The violence occurred during the "African-American Family Celebration," which has been held annually at the 163-acre zoo on the day after Easter for more than a century. The zoo, established by Congress in 1889, is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Bergfalk noted that the shootings at the zoo, which attracts some three million visitors a year, drew national attention while similar violence elsewhere in the city is largely ignored.

"Just because it happened at the National Zoo . . . it also happens in southeast Washington and it may not make the news because it happens there much more frequently," he said. "What are the larger kinds of issues that contribute to a culture where these kinds of violent acts occur? Is it just a matter of a few individuals or are there deeper dynamics and issues. I think there are.

"We live in a society that contributes in some ways to these kinds of problems," Bergfalk said.

Lynch said that some contributing factors were the cultural messages that young people see on television and in the movies "showing violence at an extraordinary rate."

"We're swimming upstream in fighting these cultural messages," he said.

Sherre Washington of the Florida Avenue Baptist Church said she also felt that much of today's violence was sparked by larger societal issues, particularly a feeling of hopelessness among some young people.

"I do believe that they (young people committing violent acts) are trying to send messages," she said. "I believe that they're hollering out for somebody to do something."

She said she thought that was the case with the two teen-age gunmen who opened fire at Columbine High School in Colorado in April 1999, leaving 12 fellow students and a teacher dead before they took their own lives.

"I think they felt hopeless," Washington said. "I see that among young people everywhere. It's a feeling of hopelessness, anger, frustration, and they don't know how to solve it or resolve it. They don't have good communicating skills, they don't have skills on how to mediate. And as a result, people don't talk any more. It's like the police, shoot first and ask questions later. They're shooting first, too, and asking questions later."

Lynch, Washington and Bergfalk said the faith-based community was working to prevent violence by offering social, recreational and educational programs for young people and adults. Lynch's organization works with both at-risk youths and at-risk neighborhoods.

"It's this kind of work, day by day, week by week, building relationships with young people, giving them skills, giving them hope, providing resources, providing access to the resources in the larger society that they may not have ready access to otherwise, it's this kind of work going on day by day week by week that makes the biggest contribution," Bergfalk said.

Washington agreed, saying that it was important for the faith-based community -- as well as parents and individual members of the community -- to keep young people "positively active and involved."

"They need to be occupied," she said. "They need parents who have guidelines and rules. It takes a community."

"We're all in the same boat," Bergfalk added. "I think part of what we're dealing with here is that sometimes folks are able to say, 'Well, the leak is in the other end of the boat so I don't need to worry about it.' When there's a shooting at Columbine or the National Zoo, we realize that when the leak is at our own feet then suddenly we're concerned.

"My hope would be instead of barricading ourselves we recognize that the whole society is in the same boat and it doesn't matter where the leak is or whether it's visible," he said. "There are acts of violence, tragedies that happen all the time and many of them go virtually unreported or gather little attention.

"We have to look at the whole society and realize that tragedy, violence, the problems everywhere really affect all of us," he said.

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