Susan B. Smith has been fighting injustice since she was a teenager in the 1960s in Concord, Mass., leading protests on everything from junk food in the school cafeteria to the former apartheid policies of South Africa.
But for the past decade-plus, Smith, a member of the Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, Pa., has focused her efforts on ending gun violence in the U.S., including as a leading member of Heeding God’s Call. Several years ago, that interfaith group managed to force a Pennsylvania gun shop to shut down by protesting outside it. And its members continue to protest other gun stores that are careless about background checks for gun buyers. As a mother, grandmother, and former first-grade schoolteacher, the horrible slaughter in Newtown, Conn., hit Smith very hard and has only further fueled her determination to change gun laws in this country.
“My bottom line is, if you live in a civil society, this has to stop,” said Smith, who has been a UU for 40 years. “If you want an assault weapon, move to [a country that] is not a civil society. I’m pretty passionate about this. I’m tired of young people being killed,” many of whom, at least in big cities like Philadelphia, are young black males, she noted. “There are just so many innocent people being killed.”
In January, in direct response to the Newtown killings, Smith helped organize five busloads of UUs and others to attend the opening of the legislative session in Harrisburg, Pa., to urge legislators to ban assault weapons and large magazine clips. In addition to Heeding God’s Call, Smith is also a member of CeaseFirePA, the Pennsylvania branch of a lobbying group that seeks to influence lawmakers to pass sensible laws to end gun violence.
And at Main Line, she has been a leader in focusing the congregation on the issue of gun violence, including organizing events at the church with experts talking about the realities of gun violence, such as an emergency room doctor and a local police chief. She’s also encouraged the congregation to join in the work of Heeding God’s Call through the gun shop protests and other instances of bearing witness, and to support it through donations.
“I cannot express fully enough my admiration for Sue’s leadership; she started out as a one-woman gang doing this,” said the Rev. Dr. Justin Osterman, the minister at Main Line, who himself has been involved in the issue for more than a decade, including mobilizing members of his former congregation in Paramus, N.J., to picket outside their congressman’s office when the federal assault weapons ban was about to expire. “Sue has really been instrumental in getting our congregation here to look at handgun violence. Her vision and leadership have made this happen.”
Smith’s calling to this issue began in the late 1990s. “Every day I would read the Philadelphia Inquirer and be undone by the number of gun homicides in the Philadelphia area,” said Smith, who has lived in that area for decades. When she learned of the Million Mom March planned for 2000, she organized four busloads of people from her church and others to attend the historic rally in Washington, D.C. While it drew international attention to the issue, the energy around the event began to wane in the following years, but Smith didn’t give up—and today she’s more determined than ever.
And she serves as a model for other UUs who want to know what they can do, with very specific suggestions on what to do. “I would start a group of people in your church that want to expand the awareness of gun violence and what would be practical in their own community,” including launching a local branch of Heeding God’s Call, she advised. “Second, have a group like CeaseFire that is paid to follow the legislative piece . . . to go to all the [legislative] meetings and present legislation.” She also recommends hosting a panel discussion where local leaders, such as police officers, can talk to the congregation about gun violence. And organize the church to participate in protests at the local, state, and national level.
And don’t let up, she urged. “Right now, there is some momentum,” she said. “But if you don’t stay on top of it, we’ll have to start from ground zero again.”
Smith and others are waiting to see what Vice President Joseph Biden’s task force on gun violence will propose, and whether Congress will do what the polls show the vast majority of Americans want: pass sensible gun laws. “I realistically hope that the federal government will make laws that will not allow assault weapons to be bought by citizens, and that high-capacity magazines will not be available, and that the price for ammunition is so high it may discourage people from buying too much ammunition,” said Smith.
Sometimes she feels discouraged, she admits. But it’s critical for everyone to participate—“Get on the bus!” she exhorts—and to stay strong. “This will take a long time, just like civil rights and some of the other engagements,” she said. “You know it’s maybe not going to happen in your lifetime. But it’s still important—and don’t give up.”