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DC priest preaches gun control


The Rev. Gary Hall’s announcement that the cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Church, would host same-sex weddings and his immediate embrace of gun control in the hours after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., have made him a regular on national television.

On Thursday, Hall was expected to be the only representative of the clergy speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference where Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would ban dozens of assault weapons.

His sermon two days after the Newtown shootings – “The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby,” he said – got a rare standing ovation.

“You have to know how stodgy this place is,” he said, referring to the cathedral. “And it wasn’t like ‘bravo’ for an opera singer; it was: ‘Thank God someone is finally using the pulpit to speak about something we care about.’ ”

It was partly Hall’s comfort in the media spotlight and with controversy that landed him the job in the fall of transforming the cathedral from a dimming star struggling to boost its profile and fundraising to a hot spot for community activism and debate. Newtown dropped the gun-control issue into his lap months later.

But as someone drawn to religion in the 1960s by activist antiwar, antisegregation chaplains raring to make a scene, he believes he can use this. He can use it to hold the church up as the place that provides justice and hope in the dark times. That message fueled a generation of progressive religion and activism, and Hall is among those who hope it can again today.

On Sunday, Hall made that connection explicit when he preached about gun violence from the pulpit at the cathedral, from which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last Sunday sermon before he was shot dead in Memphis, Tenn.

“In the spirit of Dr. King, I want to say that opposing gun violence may have political implications, but it is not primarily a political issue. It is a religious issue,” Hall preached. “If we want to stand with Jesus and with Martin Luther King, we’ve also got to stand with those who, like them, die by means of violence. And that means we who follow Jesus and stand with King have to stand against guns.”

Yet even on a roll, Hall knows the challenges facing this clergy-led crusade.

He worries about the limits of news conferences in a world where it’s hard to get people’s attention. He knows clergy, like Americans, are divided on the efficacy of gun restrictions. He agonizes about the mostly white pastors at these recent gun control events. PICO, a major faith-based advocacy group, wrote in a letter to Vice President Biden that the “main question” clergy are asking is whether White House-backed measures will focus as much on urban violence as on sprees like the one in Newtown.

Hall understands that some think white America is late to this issue.

“Black clergy in this area have said zero about (Newtown). We need to build relationships,” he says.

But right now, he knows there is momentum.

Hall and the Washington diocese’s bishop, Mariann Budde, traveled to Johns Hopkins University this week for a summit on gun control. They are soliciting criticism from gun-owning Episcopalians, hoping to broaden their pool of allies.

Hall is advocating for something striking to keep the subject on people’s minds. He likes the idea of wrapping the towering Gothic cathedral in black crepe in memory of gun violence victims. Or ringing its massive bells each morning to toll the number of deaths each day. Something that gets people’s attention.

Budde, like Hall, knows that for now there’s a limit to the effect two white mainline Christians can have when they’re new in town (she came in late 2011). But they also know they have a community packed with influential members who are, whether Democrat or Republican, largely open to Hall’s argument that it’s time for a change on gun policy.

“Our plan is to mobilize people who never go first but are willing to go second,” Budde said last week after a packed news conference of clergy calling for a list of new gun measures.

Hall is seen as someone who may be able to smooth the racial and political jagged edges of this issue.

Throughout his career, he has been called in to fix institutions.

When people started in the 1990s to talk openly about sex abuse and misconduct, he became the point man in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and handled 21 major cases, mostly involving adults. When it became clear that Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Illinois was failing financially, Hall was brought in to shrink and overhaul it. And as homosexuality became a bigger and more divisive issue in the Episcopal Church, Hall was one of a tiny group picked to build theological support for equality.

“He’s like the Joe Biden of the Episcopal Church,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, a priest at All Saints Pasadena, a 4,000-member Los Angeles church where Hall worked for 11 years. “He has the personality and respect that can bring people together.”