As gun violence grows, so does awareness and advocacy

Congregations still find it challenging to address gun control

By Mike Givler | Presbyterians Today

Graphic of handgun, bullet and dove of peaceWhile the end of the COVID-19 pandemic slowly comes into sight as more people get vaccinated, the nation’s other pandemic, that of gun violence, shows no signs of ending anytime soon. According to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit group that catalogs gun violence in the U.S., by the end of April 2021 there were already 104 mass shootings in 29 states plus Washington, D.C. A year of coronavirus lockdowns didn’t curtail gun violence, either. There were 611 mass shootings in 2020, the highest number since the Gun Violence Archive started tracking them in 2014. And as gun sales increase — the FBI processed a record of 39.7 million firearm background checks in 2020 — many fear, so will the violence.

Finding ways to become active against gun violence and raise awareness about gun control advocacy are common struggles for many churches in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which, like many political issues, find its members dividing into camps labeled “liberal” and “conservative.”

That’s why in 2019 Presbyterian Peace Fellowship went looking for someone to lead a branch on gun violence prevention. It was perfect timing for the Rev. Deanna Hollas, who was searching to get involved with a ministry related to ending gun violence. She was soon appointed to a historic first: being named minister of gun violence prevention by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Hollas, though, doesn’t bring only a passion for ending gun violence. She brings an understanding of gun culture throughout the nation.

“I grew up a native Texan in a family of gun owners,” she said. “It’s just part of the culture where I was from. I didn’t think about laws and how that was affecting my daily life.”

Her perspective changed in 2016 when Texas passed a law allowing guns on college campuses. With a daughter in college at the time, it was a jolt to Hollas to think about these weapons being where her daughter was studying and living. “Her friends and her roommate were responding to this gun law exactly as the backers of the law hoped they would,” she said. “They saw it as an invitation to become armed. It didn’t seem like a safe situation I wanted my daughter in.”

Hollas soon started attending “Moms Demand Action” meetings, and as she learned more and more about ways people can become activists in the fight against gun violence, she became intent on raising awareness for this cause and helping people and organizations stand up against this issue. It led to answering a call with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship to become its gun violence prevention ministry coordinator.

“I knew Presbyterians had a policy around gun violence prevention,” she said. “This is an area that Presbyterians were leading in with our policy and with our activism. We have been speaking out for gun violence prevention for over 50 years, and that’s not the case across other faith traditions and denominations. I began to feel called that this is something I could do — be more intentional about combining my gun violence activism with my faith.”

Growing more aware

In her short time with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Hollas has seen increased awareness on gun violence issues in the denomination. Through its online congregational toolkit alone, available for a free download at, the number of downloads has steadily increased in recent months.

In 2019, the Rev. Deena Hollas became the first-ever minister of gun violence prevention in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Hollas, a Texan who grew up with guns, felt called to this position. Courtesy of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship

“It’s a resource that has been used not just in Presbyterian congregations, but other denominations are using it as well,” Hollas said. “What’s really been accomplished in the last couple of years is building up the connections with other people that are doing this work in the faith world and encouraging congregations to get active and involved.”

Following an overture at the 224th General Assembly in 2020, Hollas hopes to be part of the team that will reexamine the current PC(USA) policy “Gun Violence, Gospel Values,” which was established in 2010. Updating will include new statistics as well as “looking at it with the lens from the people who are most impacted by gun violence,” she said.

“What do people of color, youth and women have to say in the world of gun violence prevention?” Hollas wondered, when thinking about changes to the current policy.

Gun culture history

Hollas feels that one of the most important things when it comes to educating people and congregations about the current gun climate is the origin of these weapons. By looking at the history of guns and gun manufacturing in the United States, we see our current gun violence epidemic is not a failure of individuals, Hollas says, but in fact a systemic problem that has been created by the gun industry to sell their product. “A gun doesn’t wear out. You don’t use it up; it’s not something you need to buy more than one of,” Hollas explained. “That’s always been a problem for the gun industry ever since the beginning of gun manufacturing.”

During the Civil War, gunmakers were in demand. But when the war ended and the soldiers took their military-issued rifles home with them, there was no longer the need for guns to be made, Hollas explained. Gun manufacturers went out of business, or in the case of Remington, they started making typewriters and sewing machines. However, producing guns was much more profitable for companies like Remington, so they searched for ways to get their rifles back into circulation, and these companies started marketing them to men, she said.

“These gun manufacturers created what they called the ‘boy plan’ in which they targeted boys ages 10–16 and equated gun ownership with becoming a man,” Hollas said. “Therefore, gun ownership became embedded in the American male psyche. This is what we are dealing with today. I think it’s helpful for people to see that. We’re not talking about individual failures, somebody’s identity or a family dynamic. This was intentional marketing by the gun industry in order to sell guns. My hope is that when we can see that clearly, when we can make it not about a personal failure but about a systemic issue that is being held in place because of profit, that we can begin to have a different conversation.”

As to the increase in gun sales linked to people feeling they need protection, Hollas is quick to point out that the Bible says the key to safety is friendship and togetherness. “Jesus tells us to love our neighbor,” she said. “This is how we build community: by caring for one another and loving one another. That’s actually what keeps us safe.”

Gun violence, she adds, is actually a symptom of the larger systemic injustices like poverty and racism and the white supremacy culture that has led to the “devaluing of certain communities, resources and access to health care.”

“What we know as Christians is the way to build community that keeps us safe is to love and care for one another. As a faith community, we need to start speaking up and saying that our rights to practice our peaceful religion are being compromised when there is this overemphasis on the right to have a gun,” she said.

Beyond mass shootings

Hollas often sees an increase in phone calls whenever there is a mass shooting. While an increased concern is not a bad thing, she said these situations are only a fraction of the gun activity in the United States.

“White Presbyterians get motivated to talk about gun violence when it’s mass shootings,” she said. “That’s such a small percentage of the gun violence problem. Two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides, and the majority of those are white males and particularly in rural areas. It’s not that these communities don’t have a gun violence problem; it’s just that oftentimes we like to frame the narrative around gun violence so that it’s criminal and about crime, and that’s a limited view of gun violence.”

Gun ownership is obviously a hot topic in individual congregations, too. Because the National Rifle Association has shored up its identity and message about guns, creating a division among gun owners and those who want to limit access to deadly weapons, churches are cautious to speak out on the subject for fear of alienating anyone, Hollas says.

“We just need to find our courage,” she added. “We have a good, strong theological foundation. We have Scripture. We have policy. We just need to be courageous and speak.”

One church’s courage

Philadelphia’s “Memorial to the Lost” features T-shirts with the names of those who have died from gun violence. The memorial rotates each year to different locations. This year, Overbrook Presbyterian Church hosted the display on its property to help raise awareness and get conversations started. Courtesy of Overbrook Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia

Overbrook Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia is one such congregation that has found the courage to speak. Thanks to an annual T-shirt “Memorial to the Lost” display, those who have perished in the area from the act of pulling a trigger continue to be remembered. Overbrook Presbyterian is an integral part of the memorial. Lining the church’s property, the display is comprised of brightly colored T-shirts that hang on T-shaped stands with the names and ages of gunshot victims from the Philadelphia area written on them. The congregation purchases the T-shirts and provides the volunteers to write the inscriptions on the shirts.

“When you first see all of the T-shirts, it’s this bright, colorful rainbow of T-shirts,” said Aimerie Scherluebbe, Overbrook Presbyterian’s mission and outreach chair. “The first question you ask is, ‘What is this?’ Then you start reading the names and ages. You walk past shirt after shirt after shirt of people anywhere from 2 years old to 80 years old. Then you realize what each T-shirt represents, and it’s a life that was snuffed out too soon. These are people that should be among us today, and for one reason or another they are not. It’s very emotional to walk through all of those T-shirts, read all of those names and recognize that each of these was a human being. The T-shirt is emblematic of that. That shape gives the sense of a person, and yet it’s empty.”

The T-shirt “Memorial to the Lost” was created in 2013, and the very first display was held at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia. Overbrook Church has been a site for the rotating Memorial to the Lost for the last six years, annually hosting the display during the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s an unofficial kickoff for the memorial, which is packed up after three weeks and travels to other area churches, synagogues and houses of worship in the Philadelphia area to be displayed on those properties.

Heeding God’s Call, which does work in eastern and central Pennsylvania as a faith-based movement to bring awareness to gun violence, provides the list of names and information that is written on the shirts. Unfortunately, the number of T-shirts that comprise the display has more than doubled since Overbrook Church first hosted it in 2015. This year, that figure increased to about 450.

“It started as an awareness,” Scherluebbe recalled, “but then it became a place of meditation as people prepared those T-shirts. It became a way of honoring the people who have died. It’s something to make people step back and reflect on what is going on in the area.”

In 2016, one of the names written on a T-shirt was a friend of the Overbrook Church. The church custodian’s son, James Walke III, lost his life to a shooting when he was gunned down on a city street in broad daylight. The murder of the 28-year-old man, who was shot 12 times on that February day, remains unsolved.

“It was very emotional,” Scherluebbe said. “It was very emotional for the whole church to recognize that this hits very close to home. Honoring these people became even more important. We had a special dedication and prayed over that particular T-shirt and family. Some people wanted to have the T-shirt after it was done. Whenever anybody has asked for one, we have allowed them to take it, and we replace it to be part of the moving memorial.”

The church did expand its circle one year to include a member’s nephew who was shot and killed in another part of the state, memorializing that lost life with a T-shirt as well. This year, the memorial included a high school student who was taught by a church member.

Overbrook is generally regarded as a safe area of Philadelphia, but neighboring communities have been touched by gun violence, thus keeping these tragedies in everyone’s view. While the Memorial for the Lost is one step in creating awareness for this ongoing issue, Scherluebbe knows more can be done.

“It’s one thing to put T-shirts up, but what can we do to change the environment, to make an impact on this?” she said. “Putting up T-shirts isn’t doing it. We’re just putting up more T-shirts every year. We’re still exploring how we can make an impact on this.”

Mike Givler is the communications coordinator for the Synod of the Trinity in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

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