By KELLY NICHOLAIDES
for Montclair Local
Chris Singleton lost his mother when Dylann Roof killed nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. in 2015. Less than 48 hours later, he told the media he forgave the shooter and called for love to triumph over hate.
The former Chicago Cubs minor leaguer, turned motivational speaker, visited DC Rice Hall at Union Baptist Church in Montclair on Sept. 7, spreading his message to the largely African American community. The four-hour “Break the Hate: A Faithful Response to the Crisis of Gun Violence” event was peppered with gospel choir songs, a spoken word essay by Sherlita McCann, a 45-minute talk by Singleton, and a panel discussion featuring students, law enforcement and activists.
Addressing racial reconciliation in his conversation about “Overcoming Adversity and the Unthinkable With Faith, Love and Forgiveness,” Singleton told the audience of over 100, “Hug somebody that looks different than you and tell them you love them.”
He quoted scripture, noting that rejoicing in times of suffering can build strength. Using the model of life’s journey as 90 percent reaction and 10 percent uncontrollable, the latter including one’s race, familial circumstances and “the unthinkable,” Singleton described his responses to adversity. He was a 5-year-old passenger when his father was arrested for driving while intoxicated. When he learned that his mother was killed by a radical white supremacist aiming to start a race war, Singleton adopted his mother’s attitude that the good outweighs the bad, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s teachings that love is stronger than hate.
“People ask me why I say [Dylann Roof’s] name. It’s because he’s a real person who committed murders. Dylann Roof used eight magazines, fired more than 70 bullets into a church while people were praying. Fifty bullets entered their bodies. Six hit my mom. I had zero control over this. We have a choice in how we respond,” Singleton said. “I’d never hate someone over their skin color, and they should never hate me for mine.”
Pressed on the “Break the Hate! Do Something!” event theme, Singleton noted that his role is not to endorse political candidates, or take a stance on gun control, Second Amendment issues or the National Rifle Association. His goal is to reach 100,000 youths in schools across the nation to spread his message this year.
“Someone told me people are always going to be racist. But if I talk to one kid and try to bring together all races and religions, we can help unite our cities. We need to teach people about looking at the content of a person’s character,” Singleton shared.
In a perfect world, Singleton said guns wouldn’t exist. But for those who wade into the gun debate, Singleton’s advice is to take it offline. “Don’t have this conversation on social media. We need more face-to-face. Sit down, and have coffee with someone who has different views. Listen to them, and then explain your point of view,” Singleton said.
Mayor Robert Jackson said that Singleton inspires him.
“It’s important to have safe gun laws and end racism. But we’re a long way from ending racism. Because we’re impacted by [racism], teach love, but also teach the reality,” Jackson said.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton grew up in Newark and attended Montclair State University. She was a reverend at the Southern Baptist church, a coach and speech pathologist. After her murder, the UBC Church of Montclair raised $4,000 to help families affected by the massacre, including Chris Singleton and his two siblings. Singleton expressed gratitude for the gift and then offered to speak in Montclair.
The Rev. Campbell Singleton III of Union Baptist (no relation), urged parishioners to take action on gun control, leading a rallying cry of “Break the Hate! Do Something.” The church set up tables for attendees to sign petitions calling for expanded background checks for gun permits and the Keep America Safe Act, limiting ammunition sales to 10 round magazines.
“We are outraged and grief-stricken to continue to see people losing their lives to these senseless tragedies. We feel hopeless, powerless and voiceless. We can do something about it. We have the power, capacity and platform,” the Rev. Singleton emphasized.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation in July to expand the list of crimes that would bar someone from gun ownership to those that include carjacking and terroristic threats convictions. Stricter measures include requiring renewal of firearms ID card every four years and the tracking of ammunition sales and reporting them to state police.
The panel discussed protecting houses of worship, communities and schools. Each panelist was asked questions tailored to their experiences. Students Dena Salliey and Michael Ellis noted that although public schools cannot participate on behalf of activism by any group, they have supported students in expressing their views on everything from dress codes to climate change and gun violence. The Rev. Willard Ashley of New Brunswick Theological Seminary authored “Rules for the 21st Century” for people to learn to organize to effect change. “It’s for people who want to take an issue and own it. We can do our part to move from a place of revenge, retaliation and resignation to a place of resilience and restoration,” Ashley said.
Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti said his department puts a heavy emphasis on training, conducting drills at schools and security assessments at libraries, the Wellmont, Montclair Art Museum, and other public spaces.
Asked if he sees a relationship between white supremacy, gun violence, immigration and race, activist Larry Hamm of People’s Organization for Progress answered affirmatively and acknowledged that communities need to address gun violence fueled by the drug trade. He noted that young males need to be taught that manhood is measured by their maturity to resolve issues in non-violent ways. “In the struggle to transform society, we have to transform ourselves,” Hamm added.
Lynn Lafton, who was Sharonda Coleman Singleton’s best friend in high school, noted that the slain matriarch embodied everything that individuals should strive for to unify. “Ultimately, loving each other and embracing each other is a starting point,” Lafton said.