Lebron Williams didn’t know his neighbor Isis Mahr very well, yet her death affected him.
Mahr was returning home from work at an elderly care facility in October 2021 when she was shot and killed. The 19-year-old, a 2020 graduate of Cardinal Ritter College Prep, was working to become a nurse.
“Being right across the street from me and not seeing her anymore, once you notice they’re not coming … it brings a sadness to what once was,” Lebron said. “One of my dreams in life is to fix my city. I just want to make a change in my community, and I want to build it back up to how I feel it should be.”
Lebron, a senior at Cardinal Ritter Prep, joined Movement Not Moment, a student-led effort at the archdiocesan high school to counter gun violence, which was formed in Mahr’s memory. The effort began with a march in December 2021, which drew hundreds of teens and young adults from schools across the St. Louis area.
Since then, Cardinal Ritter Prep students have been involved in activities to address some of the surface issues that lead to gun violence, said the school’s president Tamiko Armstead. Some of those needs include safe and fun activities and jobs for teens, access to trauma counseling and de-escalation tactics.
Last spring, the school hosted a daylong event, which drew about 600 teens from Catholic and public high schools and included sessions on de-escalating violence with the Urban League of St. Louis, trauma counselors from area hospitals and a job fair with local businesses. Other events included a block party and participation in a conference on gun violence held at Harris-Stowe State University.
The work of Cardinal Ritter Prep students is an example of solidarity, one of the tenets of Catholic social teaching. The core of solidarity is a pursuit of justice and peace, and the Gospel call to be peacemakers. Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.
Lebron has seen the personal effects of gun violence, too. His brother, Kenneth, was randomly shot while in his car a couple of years ago. “He didn’t do anything to deserve it,” Lebron said. “He was at the wrong place at the wrong time.” He was inspired by his brother’s reaction to the situation; Kenneth said he didn’t want to seek revenge on the person who shot at him.
Movement Not Moment
Hailee Morris, a 2014 Cardinal Ritter Prep graduate, returned to her alma mater in January as a science teacher. But she also took on another important role as teacher moderator of the student-led Movement Not Moment.
Morris said she has been working with students to dive into some of the root causes of gun violence. Later this spring, the school plans to host a meeting of The Ethics Project, a local nonprofit organization that raises awareness of some of the systemic issues related to crime, wrongful prosecutions and mass incarcerations.
Morris plans to work with students to address the effects of mass incarceration and overpolicing on the community.
“The name is perfect: Movement Not Moment,” Morris said. “This is not just a one-day thing, but this name says we’re about action and we’re making things happen. I am hoping that this event will be a catalyst for what the next year will hold.”
Senior Zion Cannon became involved in Movement Not Moment because of a personal experience — two of her uncles died in the past several years because of gun violence. The message of the movement and affecting change in the community resonated with her.
“When people look at gun violence, they think, ‘Oh, somebody shot somebody,’ but there are a lot of factors that lead up to that. What’s driving gun violence?” she said.
Zion and several other students noted the supportive environment at Cardinal Ritter Prep and how they’re able to openly talk about what’s happening in the community. “There’s a family aspect here,” she said. “And there’s good examples all around us.”
Moms Demand Action
The issue of gun violence came into Cathy Gilbert’s consciousness after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
“It was such an unbelievable tragedy,” said Gilbert, a parishioner at Christ Prince of Peace Parish in Manchester. “How could somebody deliberately kill children?”
Several years after the shooting, Gilbert retired and wanted to find a direct way to make a difference on the issue.
She became involved with Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice and its Lock it For Love program, which distributes free gun locks, particularly in areas where children are at a greater risk of gun violence. Gilbert also volunteered with the Missouri chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an organization that works toward public safety measures to protect people from gun violence.
As a Catholic, “working to end gun violence ties into our responsibility to care for all those in our community, to respect their dignity and ensure that their lives are not beset by violence,” Gilbert said. “We just have to keep working as people of faith, and we believe that the work will make a difference.”
Moms Demand Action organized an advocacy day at the Missouri Capitol earlier in March, in which participants visited with legislators to discuss “common sense” measures to protect others from gun violence, said Kim Westerman, a volunteer with the Missouri chapter.
“It’s not an all or nothing thing,” Westerman said of gun legislation. “It’s such a complex issue, and we can absolutely respect people’s rights to protect themselves and own guns for recreation. But we have to have some tools to protect people as well.” Examples include background checks for the private sale of a gun, disarming violent domestic abusers and addressing nullification laws.
The issue of gun violence is complex, Westerman said, and includes a variety of subtopics, including mass shootings, suicide and unintentional shootings, among others. “I think about the ripples in the community, and that we are living in a culture of violence,” she said. “The Church talks about counteracting a culture of violence, and I am glad that is coming into the issue of guns and how we are addressing that.”
Ryan Harper saw how the issue of gun violence disproportionately affects African Americans. The high school senior at Villa Duchesne and member of St. Elizabeth, Mother of John the Baptist Parish wanted to do something about it, so she created an educational presentation — two, actually: one for high school teens and another for elementary school children.
“From what I know and have heard first-hand, this is mainly due to lack of education and awareness about guns,” Ryan wrote in a nomination letter for the Archbishop John L. May Service Award. “I hope my project can save one more life, and get us one step closer to equality in this area.”
Ryan’s presentations, which were created as part of a project toward her Girl Scout Gold Award, address gun safety, including what to do when an untended gun is found; and the differences among different types of guns and how they function.
Ryan also joined with other Villa students to participate in Cardinal Ritter Prep’s Movement Not Moment March and would like to continue to collaborate with other schools on the issue. “It’s a relevant issue nationwide,” she said. “It’s not talked about at school or home a lot, but I am seeing it a lot in the news. It’s about raising awareness.”
>> Catholic social teaching and Lent
Catholic social teaching is the collection of the Church’s wisdom on building a just society and living lives of holiness amidst the challenges of modern society. Modern Catholic social teaching has been articulated through a tradition of papal, conciliar and episcopal documents, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “Rerum novarum: On capital and labor.”
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church explains, “The Church exists and is at work within history. She interacts with the society and culture of her time in order to fulfill her mission of announcing the newness of the Christian message to all people, in the concrete circumstances of their difficulties, struggles and challenges. She does so in such a way that faith enlightens them so that they can understand the truth that ‘true liberation consists in opening oneself to the love of Christ.’ The Church’s social pastoral ministry is the living and concrete expression of the full awareness of her evangelizing mission in the social, economic, cultural and political realities of the world.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 524)
Catholic social teaching is “an essential part of being Catholic,” said Father Don Henke, associate professor of moral theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary and pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Shrewsbury. But because of the wideness and depth of moral issues that make up social teaching, it can often be misunderstood. Some other aspects of moral theology are founded on “negative principles,” like “thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill,” Father Henke explained. “But what makes Catholic social teaching unique — and a lot more difficult — is that it focuses primarily on positive moral principles. It draws us to consider the things that we should do.”
It’s easy to tell if we’ve stolen or killed someone. But we have to wrestle with the question of whether we are truly upholding the dignity of all people, or showing preferential care for the poor, Father Henke said, and people can live out the teachings in a vast number of ways.
The important thing is that we do recognize our duty to participate in the work of Christ in the world, Father Henke said. “As St. Teresa of Avila said, we are Christ’s hands and feet, we are the way Jesus cares for people in the world,” he said.
Engaging in social efforts is a natural path for evangelization, too, when we share our “why” with others, he said.
“It would be wasting good efforts if we’re not saying that we are engaging in and doing these things because of our love for Jesus,” Father Henke said. “We’re modeling our lives after Him, and we’re meant to show our love of Him by how we love our neighbor.”
The reflection and sacrifice that we’re all called to during Lent makes the season an optimal time to consider how we are engaged in and upholding the principles of Catholic social teaching, said Father Henke.
During each week of Lent, the St. Louis Review will feature one of the seven themes of Catholic social teaching.
Feb. 20: Life and Dignity of the Human Person
Feb. 27: Call to Family, Community and Participation
March 6: The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
March 13: Preferential Option for the Poor
March 20: Rights and Responsibilities
March 27: Solidarity
April 3: Care for God’s Creation
To read more about the seven themes of Catholic social teaching, visit stlreview.com/3YtSQWO.
For more resources on Catholic social teaching, visit stlreview.com/3Isancy.
Read installments of this series by visiting stlreview.com/3xnateX
We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic and ideological differences. We are our brothers and sisters keepers, wherever they may be. Loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world. At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace. Pope Paul VI taught that if you want peace, work for justice. The Gospel calls us to be peacemakers. Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.
Read more: stlreview.com/3naShDx
A task force on gun violence has been created through the archdiocesan Peace and Justice Commission. The group is planning a gun violence summit this summer. For more information, contact Marie Kenyon at [email protected].
Urban League of St. Louis has several initiatives to decrease crime and gun violence in the community. See www.ulstl.com/serving-our-streets.html
St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission works to reduce violent crime in the region. See www.stlareavpc.org.
Movement Not Moment at Cardinal Ritter Prep can be found on Instagram at @themovementnotmoment
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America: momsdemandaction.org
Everytown for Gun Safety: www.everytown.org
Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice and the Lock it for Love program: womensvoicesraised.org/lock-it-for-love/