Post Author: Rev. Hillary Taylor
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.
The concept is simple, and based on a model from the book Beating Guns by Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin. On a certain day, people are asked to come to a certain place to turn over guns they no longer want or no longer feel safe around. No questions are asked about the gun or the reasons for turning it over. In exchange for each gun, people receive a Walmart gift card between $100-$250 in value. The guns are then checked and disarmed by the local Sheriff’s Office and given to a blacksmith to make into gardening tools. This project is meant to take Isaiah 2:4 literally: “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Gun buybacks are exactly the kind of prophetic act that Christians should be doing. In an age where many people worship the 2nd Amendment more than Jesus Christ, gun buybacks offer a space for people to resist needless, opportunistic violence. They offer a place for responsible gun-owners to voice their concern about the unchecked powers of the gun industry. They also offer a space to turn tools with a destructive past into tools for re-creation and resurrection.
Planning this event was a difficult. It was the first gun buyback in a rural South Carolina area, which meant public support was lacking from the beginning. Our biggest challenges were finding a place to hold the buyback program itself. While local pastors and public officials were privately affirming of the effort, they would not publicly say so for fear of losing their office. After we found a space for the buyback, we had to raise money for the purchase the Walmart gift cards and payment of blacksmithing costs. I sent out frantic e-mails and press releases. The El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH shootings happened during that time period, which meant local media published the buyback story like wildfire. In the end, over $6,000 was raised for the buyback program…mostly online through our Facebook fundraiser. Donors included dear friends and complete strangers. Some folks even sent cards full of encouragement for the project.
The day of the event was full of excitement and dread. The group BeSMART came to table the event and discuss firearm safety practices as a means of suicide prevention. Three pastors came to offer moral support, and communion was set up for anyone who wanted to partake after turning in their gun. That day, we collected 16 guns alone from people all over the state. By the end of the program, we collected 20 total. As we speak, a blacksmith is working on the guns and repurposing them into gardening tools. These tools will hopefully be used to create community gardens in the Saluda County area.
When reflecting on this whole process, I’m reminded that the Jesus Movement was a youth moment, and that young people are the ones who are ultimately brave enough to bring about changes which more mature adults have written off as hopeless wishes. As a young clergy woman in rural South Carolina, I try my best to remember this truth. I believe that one day there will not be an epidemic of gun violence in the United States, not because politicians will be brave enough to pass legislation, but because Christians (especially young ones) will be courageous enough to organize for it and demand it. Like many other young people, I am tired of living in fear for my community. I am tired of thoughts and prayers. I am tired of adults whose hopelessness has led to apathy. So what are we waiting for?
Hillary Taylor is a provisional elder in the South Carolina United Methodist Annual Conference. She presently serves as the pastor of a two-point charge (Bethany-Zoar) in Saluda, South Carolina. Born and raised in Columbia, she studied psychology and poverty studies at Furman University. After graduating with her bachelors degree, she served as a young adult missionary with Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church for three years. She received her M.Div. at Candler School of Theology, where she became deeply involved with interfaith dialogue, community organizing, and teaching theology classes at Lee Arrendale State Prison. When she is not thinking about restorative justice, conflict transformation, and fresh expressions of ministry for the local church, she loves running with her dog (Lola), hunting with her dad, and experiencing the outdoors any way she can.