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Panelists encourage churches to get involved in gun violence prevention


‘No one ever caused any change by being neutral’

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

A memorial honoring victims of gun violence

A memorial honoring victims of gun violence. (Photo courtesy of the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins)

LOUISVILLE — Near the end of a recent Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) webinar, Tracie Campbell made an impassioned plea for people of faith to “do something” to curtail gun violence in this country.

“No one ever caused any change by being neutral, and so I think that the church has a place to be bold, to make a statement, and if people don’t like the statement that you’re making as the church, then they’ll find somewhere else to go and worship, but you have to take a stance because people are dying,” said Campbell, senior health manager for Mecklenburg County Public Health’s Office of Violence Prevention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Campbell was one of three panelists who shared their thoughts and expertise during “The Intersection of Faith and Gun Violence Prevention,” a webinar by the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness (OPW). The July 27 event was coordinated by OPW Summer Fellow Ariyah Sadler, with assistance from Christina Cosby, the office’s Domestic Representative.

Cosby delivered the sobering statistic that, as of the morning of the online discussion, more than 24,600 lives had been lost to various forms of gun violence in this year alone.

In addition to holding the webinar, OPW has issued an Action Alert asking Presbyterians to support the Safer Neighborhoods Gun Buyback Act of 2023 to give communities an opportunity to initiate buyback programs to reduce gun violence.

“This legislation would allow the Department of Justice to make grants to state and local governments as well as gun dealers for people to turn their guns in for financial compensation in the form of prepaid cards that cannot be used to purchase another firearm,” according to the Action Alert.

The Office of Public Witness hosted the webinar, which you can watch on Vimeo. (Screengrab)

During the webinar, panelists explored some of the root causes of gun violence and how churches and others can address them, such as reaching out to young people who Campbell said often don’t have enough to do, building relationships and partnerships, and being active, even to the point of civil disobedience when necessary.

“You know who needs to be doing this more than anybody? The people who are older,” said panelist the Rev. Deanna Hollas, who serves as Gun Violence Prevention Ministry Coordinator for Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. “You have the capacity to do this in ways that you don’t realize because you are able to take risks that other folks may not be able to take. … Let’s use this to our advantage and put our bodies and our efforts into something that is actually going to create the world that our children deserve to live in.”

The panel also pointed out several issues with the Second Amendment, which protects the right to bear arms.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “is something that needs to be critiqued, and when placed against the Bible, placed against the trajectories that support our love and concern for our sisters and brothers, we can see that it is quite opposed to these ideas, quite antithetical to them,” said the Rev. Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr., an Associate Professor of Bible and Director of the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Sadler also noted that the amendment dates to “when people had guns that could fire maybe one or two rounds a minute, not when you have guns that could fire hundreds of rounds in a minute. The laws were made by people who also talked about Manifest Destiny, and the elimination of the American Indian population by genocide, that also supported things like — oh, I don’t know — slavery. … We’ve recognized some of these other bad ideas. Why don’t we recognize that this might also be one of these bad ideas?”

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins moderated a three-person panel during “The Intersection of Faith and Gun Violence Prevention” webinar.

The panel was moderated by the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, who leads OPW and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations as advocacy director.

Hollas highlighted Guns to Gardens, a movement to collect and dismantle guns that are then transformed into garden tools or other items. Churches that are interested in getting involved can learn best practices in Guns to Gardens action circles being held by Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.

These action circles teach congregations how “they can go about being a safe surrender site so we can begin to embody Isaiah’s words of turning our swords into plowshares,” Hollas said. “Our next round of action circles are going to be starting Sept. 7. … We’d love to help you know how to get these unwanted guns that can be dangerous, not safely stored, out of homes and turned into something that can be life-giving.”

To help change the culture around guns, Hollas also suggested normalizing asking people, “Are there guns in the home? And if so, how are they stored?” That would be something to raise before sending a child to another person’s home, for example.

“We can’t expect children to be responsible for their own safety,” Hollas said. “We really need to put that onus back on the gun owners and on the adults because if you’re going to own a gun, let’s go back to responsible gun ownership and make sure that nobody else has access to that.”

Hollas said it’s also important to push for sensible legislation and to be mindful of whom you vote for.

“There’s a website called Gun Sense Voter and so you can go there and you can find what candidates … are going to support gun safety laws.”

Campbell stressed the importance of acknowledging and addressing that some gun violence is being fueled by “structural and systemic issues that have plagued communities for decades,” including problems related to housing, poverty and inequities in education. Those things can contribute to people having less hope, Campbell said. She also spoke of people living in fear, lacking a sense of community and, sometimes, values.

On a similar note, Sadler said, “I believe that we’ve lost connection with the value of human life,” which is a core value for any people of faith, from Christians to Muslims to Quakers, he said.

In Mecklenburg County, efforts are underway to get faith communities to work together across denominational and geographic lines and to partner with community-based organizations “that are really struggling for resources,” Campbell said. “Sometimes, they just need space and houses of faith have space.”

It’s important to think about “how we get outside of the four walls of the church and do the work of faith communities, which is not just taking care of your parishioners but taking care of your neighbors and seeing people outside of your house of faith as being your neighbor,” Campbell said.

To watch the video in full, go here. Also, you can read about actions by the PC(USA) General Assembly and peruse a webinar series called Standing Our Holy Ground.

The Office of Public Witness is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Upcoming events include the Young Adult Advocacy Conference for college students and seminarians.

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