The largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States ordained last month a minister for gun violence prevention, a move local church leaders are praising.
The Rev. Deanna Hollas will be part of Gun Violence Prevention Ministries in the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship to work as an advocate and liaison for churches across the country. Reducing gun violence is one of several social issues on which the Presbyterian Church USA focuses.
The Rev. Candace Worth, pastor at New Hope Presbyterian Church on Shallowford Road, said the denomination putting greater resources and effort behind reducing gun violence is an important step. The new minister will work connecting church leaders across the country, and will have the opportunity to share successful techniques between churches, Worth said.
"There are a lot of aspects of peacemaking and so to have someone who's specifically focused on trying to resource to the whole denomination how to handle gun violence and how to do prevention in your local church and try to advocate for things in your local church is important, because it's become so prevalent," Worth said. "It's not just a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of thing anymore."
Worth noted that the gun violence prevention minister was ordained in Dallas, the home of the gunman in El Paso, who killed 22 people at a Walmart there on Aug. 3. While gun violence has killed members of faith communities in their houses of worship in the United States and abroad, Worth said her church's response to reduce violence will not involve arming church members.
"A lot of churches have looked at beefing up security and having guards and things like that," she said. "Our thought is guns don't belong in a place of worship and that the sanctuary is a place that is open to all people because we're not the ones who invite people in. God is. That's a witness that we live out of love and not out of fear."
Through July, there have been 67 shooting incidents in Chattanooga, resulting in 17 people killed and 65 people wounded.
In 2017, Worth was part of a group of local faith leaders who met with then-U.S. Sen. Bob Corker in his Chattanooga office to discuss support for legislation to reduce gun violence, such as strengthening background checks. The Rev. Laura Becker, pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church, was also at the meeting. The gun violence prevention minister is a natural step in PC(USA)'s work on the issue, Becker said.
"Within our denomination, there are clergy who are serving in their communities doing work advocating for justice issues, whether that is hunger or homelessness or anti-racism work, so to have one addressing the issue of gun violence feels very much in keeping in where our church has been," she said.
Becker said she would like to see the new minister help churches educate and activate their members.
"I think it would be a great gift for all of our churches is she's able to help find resources and facilitate churches to have these conversations, because they're not easy conversations," Becker said. "Even though that is where the denomination has been, that doesn't mean every person in every PC(USA) church even is where the church has been on some of those issues."
Taylor Lyons, Moms for Social Justice community outreach director, said the PC(USA) announcement is an important commitment on behalf of the faith community, and the group welcomes more voices to the discussion about new gun legislation.
"Moms for Social Justice believes the faith community is a voice desperately needed in this discussion," Lyons said in a statement. "We strongly believe this is a place where we can find common ground. A unified voice from the activist community and faith community saying enough is enough is twice as loud. We are here for it, and welcome the dialogue."
Moms for Social Justice has worked on local gun violence prevention initiatives with the Chattanooga chapter of Moms Demand Action. Rachel Lesler, a volunteer with the group and elder at Northminster, said people of faith have a duty to care for the oppressed and marginalized.
"Unfortunately, we know as gun violence prevention activists, that it's minorities and women who are more affected by gun violence," Lesler said. "If my job as a person of faith is to care for them, then I should also be aware of the risks that people of color face, the risks that immigrants face, the risks that refugees face, the risks that women face. And a lot of that comes back to gun violence."
Lesler said faith communities often draw people from various backgrounds, providing an opportunity for more people to learn about and advocate on the issue.
In February, the U.S. House passed two bills to increase gun control, including strengthening background checks on gun sales. As of Thursday, neither bill has been taken up in the Senate.