This is a tableau at the Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church, where flags were placed following the Las Vegas murders. More details at or 215-247-8885. (Photo by Barbara Sherf)

by Barbara Sherf

While last month’s deadliest mass shootings in modern history in Las Vegas are still fresh in our minds, the organizers of the annual Festival of Music and the Arts to be held Nov. 3-5 at the Presbyterian Church in Chestnut Hill (PCCH) had long planned a theme of song and art in memory of the men, women and children whose lives have been tragically altered or cut short by gun violence. At each event, a free-will offering will be taken in support of Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence, a faith-based movement committed to the prevention of gun violence.

The weekend opens with an art exhibition entitled “Souls Shot: Portraits of Victims of Gun Violence” on Friday, 6 p.m., followed by a 7:30 p.m. appearance of State Sen. Art Haywood and The Healing Presence Singers. The artists will hold a roundtable discussion on Sunday, 11:30 a.m., at the church. The Festival continues with a Readers’ Theater production of “26 Pebbles” on Saturday, 7:30 p.m. The weekend concludes with a performance of Mozart’s “Requiem,” James MacMillan’s “A Child’s Prayer” and the premiere of Lewis Spratlan’s “Unspoken Words” by the church’s Gallery Choir on Sunday, 4 p.m.

PCCH Rev. Cynthia Jarvis said plans had been in the works for over a year to focus on the victims of gun violence. She hopes the program will provide healing to the families of victims and open a dialogue on the gun violence issue.

“People talk about this being the ‘new normal,’ but there is nothing normal about any of this,” said Rev. Jarvis. “People are mocking social media posts that say ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with you,’ and I get that. It’s hard to know how to respond in a way that is effective. It’s very complicated, and we need to work together to look at mental health issues, gun control and political issues and perhaps treat this as a public health issue. Institutions like churches and smaller gatherings of communities need to bear witness to being in a world that’s not divided but life-giving versus death-dealing. The moment I stop being completely appalled by this is the moment I stop being human.”

Rev. Jarvis and others in the audience wept at the rehearsal for “26 Pebbles,” a play written by New York actor Eric Ulloa in response to the unthinkable deaths by gun violence of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Ulloa found himself so consumed by this tragedy that he went to Newtown to speak with residents of the town about what life was like there both before and after that life-changing morning. Six members of the church’s congregation will portray 21 residents of Newtown, all of whom were profoundly affected by the shootings and their aftermath. The moving play explores the themes of family, community and what it is like to be thrust tragically into the spotlight. The play reading will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4.

“It’s not a play that advocates one solution to this,” said Rev. Jarvis. “It’s about being a part of a society that talks about mental illness and about a man who was so isolated and distressed he took it out on innocent children and teachers. That community in Newtown will forever be marked by this tragedy. Their hearts are forever broken, and in those spaces sometimes there is the possibility of finding the human in each of us. My hope is that the words will open our hearts in a new way of talking together and acting together. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I’m in the business of hope.”

PCCH Music Director Daniel Spratlan’s father, Lewis Spratlan, a widely-performed and much-honored composer and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music, 2000, was commissioned by the church to put the poem “Unspoken Words” by Paul Kane to music. “Spratlan’s piece is the melding of some harsh words with classical music that we hope alters our way of hearing to involve the whole of us and give us space to rethink how we move ahead from here,” said Rev. Jarvis.

The Memorial to the Lost, first installed on the lawn of The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in February of 2013, will occupy the lawn again during the Festival and continue until the end of November. A project of Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence, the memorial remembers on tee shirts that double for tombstones the names, ages and death dates of all who have lost their lives to gun violence in Philadelphia in 2017.

All events will take place at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave. For more information, call 215-247-8855 or visit