The Spiritual State: Just Ask

Theodore Roethke, the great Michigan poet who died in 1963, once said, "What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible." In his memory, I will occasionally highlight the work of impossibility specialists. These are people and organizations who are willing to enter politically supercharged issues in the culture wars without becoming political at all. They represent a kind of deep spiritual courage (although some of these impossibility specialists are not religious or even spiritual) that is both rare and needed in order to recover hope. They show us all that outside of the fractious debates and polemics, some real bipartisan human healing can still occur and the poisoned political environment can be detoxified if we look to what we all agree can be done, rather than what we refuse to agree can be done.

I recently encountered some specialists in the impossible who are working in the supercharged field of gun violence--but who have no interest and take no position on the tendentious question of gun control. In 1997 they created a small organization called PAX ( With the leadership of Dan Gross, a budget of under $1 million, a staff of less than 10 and administrative costs of under 10 percent, they have developed several real solutions to the gun violence that tragically snatches nearly 2,900 kids--a 9/11-worth of young people every year--into heaven and away from us every year. Without any programs or flip ideological screeds foolishly and unconstitutionally demanding the confiscation of all guns, the people at PAX have focused instead on what can be done right now by all of us on both sides of the gun debate to save the lives of those who will die next year unless something is done to stop it.

The first of PAX's two major programs is called ASK (Asking Saves Kids). This campaign, created in collaboration with the American Academy of Pediatrics, is so absurdly simple every sensitive soul among us ought to be embarrassed at not thinking it up ourselves. The ASK Campaign simply asks parents to ask the adults in the homes their children are visiting if there is a gun in the house. That's it! Just ask. More than 40 percent of homes in our country have a gun, says PAX, and almost half of those guns are unlocked or loaded or both. I love this idea because it is real, and it is within our power and it works. It empowers parents who already ask about peanuts and dog hair to also ask about guns. More than 400 organizations have joined with PAX to promote the ASK Campaign, and they estimate that now over 2 million play dates per day are preceded by this not-at-all innocent question, "Do you have a gun in your house?"

It's a question Carol Price wishes she had asked. In a letter written to PAX, Price recalls the events of Aug. 20, 1998: "My 13-year-old son John asked to go to play with his friend down the street. In the five years that John's friend's parents and I had been neighbors, I had never thought about the safety of my son playing at their house, so I let him go. He tousled my hair as he always did and said, 'Thanks mom, I love you.' I watched him through the dining room window as he walked down the sidewalk, stopped just short of our neighbor's front door and blew me a kiss. That was the last time I saw him alive. Twenty minutes later I found the police at my front door. While John was watching TV, Phillip, a 9-year old child in the home, went to an upstairs bedroom, opened a dresser drawer and took out a 9-mm handgun. A few moments later he pulled the trigger. John was struck once in his face and died instantly. It turned out that there were 11 unsecured weapons throughout my neighbor's house. None of us ever knew about the weapons because no one ever asked the question, "Do you have a gun in your home?"

The second project of PAX is called the Speak-Up Campaign. This is the first nationwide hotline for students to anonymously report weapon-related threats at their schools. The hotline number is 866-SPEAK-UP. Again the statistics are numbing. Every day more than 100,000 kids bring a weapon to school. According to PAX literature, every single school day in America eight kids are killed by gun violence, and three out of four attackers told other students about their plans before the shootings. If the ones who are told have the courage to report these threats, lives can be saved. This Speak-Up hotline can give them the courage. Already more than 5,000 calls have come into the hotline and these calls have saved lives. As Michelle, a California student, wrote to PAX: "We found out a boy was going to attack our school. He had four guns and was planning on walking into the cafeteria around lunchtime. They said a lot of people might have been shot, even killed. We told what we knew. We saved our school."

PAX has a letter of praise from former attorney general John Ashcroft as well as ultraliberal advisers from the Hollywood-New York entertainment glitterati. Together, these strange bedfellows have walked into the mine field of gun violence and have not blown up nor blown up each other. This is because they have sought out and discovered the common ground of concern and the need for real solutions not ideological Armageddon. Earlier this week, I attended the PAX gala in Manhattan, where Rosanne Cash, the daughter of the late Johnny Cash, and one of the honorees at the gala, sent a note to the semi-attentive lamb-chop eaters at Cipriani's. Cash could not attend because she was sitting at the bedside of her gravely ill mother. Her musician husband, John Leventhal, read the note, which apologized for her absence, before he joined Lyle Lovett on stage. "My mother never made us children responsible for our own safety," wrote Cash. "In the same way, we have to ASK if there's a gun where our children are playing, and we have to help our teenagers SPEAK-UP to report a weapons threat in school; and we have to protect them from their own erratic impulses and innocent curiosity, until they are mature enough to do so themselves. We have to be the grown up in the room. I am sorry I am not there tonight with you ... but I thank you for this honor and for supporting PAX, and for being the grown up in the room. God bless you."

No, Roseanne and all the people at PAX ... God bless you! I come from a religious tradition that teaches, if you save one life it is like saving an entire world. The people at PAX are not just kind good folk. They are world savers and my first example in this column of specialists in the impossible. More to follow.