Rev. Rodney Francis wants your toy guns.
Francis, pastor of the Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, is collecting toy guns in an effort to change the culture of violence among young black men in a city that recorded 113 homicides last year.
The bold project is called the “Toy Gun Buy Back Initiative” and here’s how it works: Children can turn in toy weapons and violent video games and exchange them for a range of other toys like building sets and craft kits.
“We want to talk about the culture of violence and how we are condoning the culture of violence,” Francis told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “We want to discourage violence through non-violent toys and challenge parents –and the community – to put non-violent toys in the hands of our children.”
Francis announced the initiative last week at Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, the historic site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke during a civil rights rally in 1963. And while nearly 100 toy guns have been exchanged so far, Francis hopes that parents and community leaders will continue to support the initiative in the weeks ahead.
The goal of the faith-based project is to collect 1,000 toy guns, but the broader mission is to encourage mothers and fathers to think differently about the kinds of toys that are given to kids. Francis said research suggests that toy guns desensitize children to violence and causes them to be less empathetic to victims of gun violence.
“We think we were successful because there is evidence that people did get our message,” Francis said. “One mother brought in about 15 toy guns from one home and said, ‘I want these out of my house.’ That’s the response we were hoping for.”
“Mothers get it,” Francis added, “It’s the men who have a hard time with the initiative. It goes to the issue of how we raise our boys.”
Pro-gun rights groups are skeptical, too. They accuse Francis of using his program to violate the Second Amendment by scaring children about guns. A few gun enthusiasts called Francis’ church and sent him e-mails to complain about his initiative.
“I explained our position,” Francis said. “Some understood and others, well, we agreed to disagree.”
Francis plans to elevate the discussion about rising crime in St. Louis as more black teenagers are picking up guns to settle street-corner quarrels. His toy gun buy-back initiative has the support of the St. Louis Police Department and the county Sherriff’s Department.
The pastor’s effort is noble and I believe his initiative can help facilitate an intelligent dialogue about gun violence in America. But he needs help. Black parents – and black fathers in particular — should join Francis’ cause since he’s responding admirably to a national crisis.