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“Targeting Gun Violence with Gun Buybacks”

I’m a bit of an outlier among my young female clergy colleagues. I’m a gun owner and a hunter— I use my guns exclusively for hunting wild game. As a kid, hunting with my dad was a way for me to get into nature. It allowed me to observe how I fit “into the family of things,” as Mary Oliver once wrote in her poem “Wild Geese.” To this day, hunting helps me unwind from the stressors of ministry. I can clear my thoughts and catch my perspective. It’s sometimes harder to pray in my church office than it is to pray in a deer stand— even if I’m waiting on an 8-point buck to cross my path. Owning guns helps me fit into my ministry context. I currently pastor two small churches nestled between timber woods and cow pastures in rural South Carolina. Most of my parishioners are farmers and they use guns for hunting and protecting livestock. I’ve really come to enjoy learning about the guns they shoot. Some parishioners even have legacy guns: priceless relics they’ve inherited from ancestors long dead. It is humbling to be trusted with these family histories. But while there are many proud gun-carrying members, there are also many for whom guns are a painful reminder of the epidemic of violence in our society.

Many churches in my area still feel unsafe in the wake of the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting five years ago. But most of our gun violence in South Carolina does not come from domestic terrorism: it comes from suicide. Over 90% of suicides in my state involve a gun, and we are 50th in the nation when it comes to availability of mental health first aid. South Carolina is also the only state in the southeast of the U.S. with an increasing suicide rate. During my high school years, I experienced profound depression, brought on by a family crisis. At one point, during the height of my depression, I imagined a handgun to my head and felt a sense of relief rather than dread. This image propelled me to tell a friend, who encouraged me to see a counselor. Thankfully, my family had the financial resources to pay for a counselor. Therapy likely saved my life, but many people don’t have the financial resources for counseling services. These memories, statistics, and ministry experiences propelled me to start a new model for ministry in my community: a gun buyback program.

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On the day we had an active shooter drill…

On Sunday, September 15, Emily’s church had the first of three active-shooter trainings in the midst of its worship services. Members and friends were told about the training in advance.

On the day we had an active shooter drill, our community awoke to thunderstorms. Rain-soaked shoes dampened our carpets, squeaked on the hardwood, and worshippers raced into the sanctuary right as the prelude was ending, just like they always do.

On the day we had an active shooter drill, our worship didn’t seem to mind. The congregation sang about laughter; the choir about loudest praises. The scripture promised that new life was coming. The preacher spoke about abandoning cynicism for hope; and those gathered seemed—mostly—to agree.

On the day we had an active shooter drill, we baptized a new believer in faith with tearful, heartfelt ritual. We gathered around God’s table to share the promise and the feast.

And then the drill got started.

We put three old words into new context: Run. Hide. Fight.

Congregants shuddered and cried in our most sacred of spaces. The pews beneath them strained and creaked, trying hard to hold all that restlessness, all that discomfort, all that weight.

At least one person grew angry, and stormed out once we finished. Another said: There’s no one that dangerous around here. Observing our mostly white congregation, I thought: We are the dangerous ones.

When it was over, a pastor acknowledged the swirling emotions, thanking all who gathered for taking time to think about such awful things. It’s easier to turn away our hearts and heads and eyes.

Together, we prayed for broken hearts, and asked for God to use them. Move us, we prayed, into action. May our sadness become compassion. May our  tiredness become advocacy. May our anger inspire us  to—finally—make a change.

Somehow, when we left, the sun was shining. Inexplicably. On the day we had an active shooter drill.