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PC(USA) pastors in Nashville respond to the events and politics of gun violence

Disappointment and helplessness about the prospects of the Tennessee Legislature approving commonsense gun safety laws are heightened’

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Katy Anne via Unsplash

NASHVILLE, Tennessee — “The grief continues to be heavy,” says the Rev. Ray Thomas, executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. “Many of our churches had members, friends or families whose children attend, or once attended, the Covenant School,” where last month’s shooting took the lives of four adults and three children. “I have spoken with many of our pastors in the Nashville area, particularly those who have schools and preschools on their campuses. They all have taken extra measures to ensure the safety of the children, staff, and families.”

On March 27, a 28-year-old entered Covenant School, affiliated with a Presbyterian Church in America congregation, and fired 152 rounds of ammunition, killing three nine-year-old children and three adults within 14 minutes. The guns — an assault rifle and a pistol, along with five other firearms — were all legally purchased by the assailant, Audrey Hale, between 2020 and 2022. Tennessee does not require background checks to purchase firearms, has no “red flag” laws to seize weapons from individuals who might be a danger to themselves and others and became the 25th permit-less carry state in 2021.

PC(USA) pastors and churches respond

In the wake of this tragedy, PC(USA) ministers around Nashville and members of their congregations struggled with a range of emotions and with how to respond.

The Rev. Dr. Donovan Drake

The Rev. Dr. Donovan Drake, Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Nashville, wrote a letter to the congregation about his personal connection to the Covenant School through members of Westminster whose children attend. He visited annually and participated in the chapel service for “bring your pastor to school” day. After feeling “thankful for the news” that the member children who were students there were safe, Drake read the names of the three who died and recalled seeing the face of one of them while participating in the chapel’s children’s sermon. He identified the despair of those intimately connected as unimaginable but concluded with what he did know. “What we know is that there is money to be made, politics to protect, and the news cycle will move. What we know is that the grieving will not. Our call is to be in covenant with them.”

“The juxtaposition of Holy Week and Easter provided an opportunity for our congregations to address the tragic losses and raw grief both liturgically and theologically” said Thomas of the 80 congregations in the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. The Rev. Adrian White, interim pastor of Woodland Presbyterian Church in East Nashville, a Matthew 25 congregation, responded to the grief and outrage being expressed in the wake of the shooting and the political fallout. “We sought to adapt our worship plans to reflect the full, sometimes painful reality of our life together,” White said.

White described how the congregation gathered on the church steps for Palm Sunday and held a moment of silence for the seven lives lost at the Covenant School before their procession of palms. “As a pastor, I’m called to preach good news, even and especially in the midst of tragedy, suffering and chaos” said White. “Through prayer and preaching throughout Holy Week, I strove to amplify the truth of God’s love and justice while also offering words of comfort and solidarity as we grieved together for our city and for the ongoing emergency of gun violence we face in the United States.”

White lifted up how “it has been important to our community to reject anti-trans rhetoric and ideologues who attempted to twist the tragedy at Covenant School into fodder for an agenda of hate.” Thomas remarked that this perspective was shared among other congregations in the presbytery, which has signed on to the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Matthew 25 movement to address congregational vitality, systemic poverty, structural racism, gender justice, climate change and militarism. “A number of our churches are also recommitting their voices, energies, and resources to advocate for, support, and care for our LGBTQIA+ siblings,” Thomas said.

A resurrection hope that White gave in their Easter sermon was of the faces of the young people at the state Capitol following the shooting. “I was grateful to share glimpses of hope, too, like the powerful work of young people in Nashville speaking out for politics that will keep them safer at school and help create a world we can all live and thrive in.”

Tennesseans take action

On March 30, the first day since the Covenant School shooting when the Tennessee General Assembly was back in session, hundreds of children, teens and their parents gathered at the Capitol  to seek tighter gun-control laws.

Photo by Colin Lloyd via Unsplash

While no specific gun laws were on the day’s agenda, three Democratic representatives tried to speak on the need for gun reform and to listen to the voices represented in the gathering outside the statehouse. Their behavior was deemed out of order. They were accused of “disorderly behavior” and on April 6, the three — Representatives Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — were stripped of their committee assignments. Jones and Pearson were expelled from the House, an act that has been used only eight times in Tennessee’s history to prior to last week. Six representatives were expelled in 1866 for trying to prevent the passage of the 14th amendment granting citizenship to former slaves. The other two were for charges of bribery and sexual misconduct in the 20th century.

On Monday, the Nashville Metro Council voted 36-0 to reinstall Jones as their representative. On Wednesday, the Shelby County Commission followed suit on behalf of Pearson.

‘Taking stock, regrouping and strategizing on the horizon’

“Disappointment and helplessness about the prospects of the Tennessee legislature approving commonsense gun safety laws has only been heightened following the expulsions of Justin Jones and Justin Pearson from the Tennessee House last Thursday,” said Thomas of the complex grief he was sensing around the presbytery. “I sense a coming period of taking stock, checking in with one another, regrouping, and strategizing on the horizon, as we step into this week following Easter Sunday.” Thomas also noted this week’s shootings at Old National Bank in Louisville near the Presbyterian Center, remarking how the frequency of the shootings and familiarity of impacted communities for Presbyterians “significantly add to our grief, our sense of urgency, and our shared frustration over not being able to formulate a clear, hopeful path forward.”

‘May God inspire our collective imaginations and unite us in courage and clarity to reroute our shared path away from these deadly outbreaks of violence, hatred, and destruction.’ — The Rev. Ray Thomas

In a worship service held virtually at the Presbyterian Mission Agency on Wednesday following the deaths of five people in the bank two blocks from the Presbyterian Center, the Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, preached and cited that in 2023 alone, there had been 147 mass shootings in the 102 days since the beginning of this year. Of those, according to Gun Violence Archive, 73 children under the age of 11 have been killed and another 165 injured.

“As Christians we are called to reckon with our role in a culture where gun violence is a constant threat, especially given the clear connections between Christian nationalism and the idolatry of guns,” said White, the pastor in Nashville. “I pray that Woodland and all PC(USA) churches can continue to dialogue and take action to create cultures of peace where we treat life as precious and refuse to accept violence as normal.”

Praying for our future

Thomas, the presbytery executive, sent this prayer out on the afternoon of the Covenant School shootings:

“May our love and tender compassion for family, friends, and strangers bring Christ’s healing and the Spirit’s peace. May God inspire our collective imaginations and unite us in courage and clarity to reroute our shared path away from these deadly outbreaks of violence, hatred, and destruction. May love of neighbor be our vow and our daily practice. And may all of our children, in all our communities, know that love as a guaranteed certainty.”

Since the late 1960s when the General Assembly of what would become the PC(USA) called for “control of the sale and possession of firearms of all kinds,” the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has called on the Church with greater and greater moral urgency to be involved in education and advocacy at the federal, state, and community level to prevent gun violence.

For resources from the Presbyterian Mission Agency on responding to gun violence through advocacy, education, liturgy and worship, click the links below.

Gun Violence resources collected by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program including the PC(USA)’s official gun violence policy, actions of the General Assembly, toolkits and formation resources for congregational advocacy, a documentary film and books on the subject of gun violence, response guides to unnatural disasters, theological underpinnings and worship resources.

Gun Violence Prevention Resources from Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, including its “Guns to Gardens” program.

The article “What Would Jesus Pack?” in “Call to Worship,” Vol. 52.3

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