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Credit: Amanda Suarez

University Chaplain Charles Howard envisions a gun-free world and has a plan to work toward it.

In October, Howard officially launched his independent Gun-Free World initiative, a cultural campaign to elevate the conversation around gun violence and gun ownership.

The initiative is a multi-platform project that will bring together music, poetry and visual arts to imagine what a gun-free world would actually look, sound and be like.

Specifically, the initiative will produce a musical soundtrack, a small book of poems and an art exhibition, all of which will feature the best selected submissions from different musicians, writers and artists around the country. Howard hopes to take these components on the road in the spring to hold concerts, poetry readings and gallery exhibitions to further stimulate dialogue around issues of gun violence.

Howard first began developing the project and assembling his team in the summer.

“A big part of the motivation for me is being a part of the lives and communities that have been deeply disturbed by the rise in violence and the rising awareness around it. We’re more aware of what’s going on now with social media, and it can’t help but grab your heart,” Howard said.

For Howard, the cause is inspired not only by social issues at large, but also by his personal experiences and faith.

Howard has been confronted with two direct threats of gun violence in his own life. The first occurred while he was growing up in Baltimore, when two men approached him and his friends with a shotgun and stole his bike. The second occurred when he moved to Philadelphia and someone pulled a gun on him on the streets. Howard says that thankfully, neither experience left him traumatized and that the main motivation for his initiative is actually a religious one.

“As a Christian, it’s difficult to reconcile owning a weapon with the intent of taking life. Even owning a gun to use when people around me are threatened doesn’t seem Christ-like,” Howard said. “Most religions trend towards peace, grace and reconciliation and loving our enemies, so it doesn’t make sense to have a gun.”

Howard is joined by many Penn alumni in his efforts.

One of the collaborators on this project is Engineering graduate Rob Murat, an R&B artist and actor who co-starred with Halle Berry in the CBS television series “Extant” and guest-starred on the FOX television series “Bones.” Howard and Murat met during their Penn undergraduate years through their involvement in the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

Murat was glad to jump on board when Howard reached out with the idea of “Gun-Free World.”

“With all of these shootings and disasters, people keep saying something’s got to be done, but no one really steps up and does something of significance,” Murat said. “But this idea excited me because it can have a significant impact. It’s going to be a steep climb, but I’m up for the challenge.”

In line with his talents, Murat is spearheading the production of the soundtrack for the initiative. Murat said that he has received a few exciting submissions already from different artists, including one from 2002 College graduate and rapper Angel Del Villar, better known by his stage name, Homeboy Sandman.

Supporting Howard from behind the scenes is 2006 School of Education graduate Linda Hollenback, who helped Howard get the initiative off the ground with administrative and technological assistance. Hollenback is the owner and principal consultant of Hollenback Consulting LLC and a longtime friend of Howard’s.

“Chaz is a champion of those who are overlooked and underserved, of those who feel lost, forgotten or behind,” Hollenback said. “I became involved because I believe in Chaz.”

Together, the Gun-Free World team hopes to ultimately change public perception of lethal firearms and to get guns out of circulation. To do the latter, the initiative has partnered with RAWtools, an organization that repurposes weapons into new garden tools for free.

“The hope is that people’s hearts will be turned so they won’t want to own a gun anymore. But we don’t want people to take it to a gun shop or just give it to a relative,” Howard said. “We want guns completely out of circulation by giving them a new purpose, which is what Raw Tools does — ‘beating swords into plowshares,’ like it says in the scripture.”

Howard, Murat and Hollenback look forward to the impact the project will potentially have.

“I believe in the power of one person to inspire a community and, in turn, of united communities’ power to change the world,” Hollenback said. “This movement will not be easy. It will not happen overnight. It will require many, often difficult conversations, but for each person brave enough to have one, we become one step closer to realizing the vision of a gun-free world.”

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