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America's First Gun Violence Prevention Minister


The largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States has been pushing for policies to curb gun violence for decades. Now it's appointed a gun violence prevention minister to help focus these efforts - and that includes convincing reluctant congregations to get involved. The minister's name is Deanna Hollas. We spoke earlier this week. And I began by asking her what new things she wants churches to do.

DEANNA HOLLAS: The first thing is just to be able to talk about it. This is a really highly charged issue. Just saying the word gun can bring very strong emotions. And so I think it's something that we've tended to avoid and to be the church - that we need to be talking about any time that people are dying.

GREENE: Well, what do you tell people who might say that it's a good thing that the churches have not wanted to bring an incredibly divisive conversation inside?

HOLLAS: I get that. I mean, I certainly understand. But I think the time for that is over. This is becoming such an epidemic. It's growing every year - that we just can't be silent anymore. And it's time that the church repents the sin of being silent, quite honestly, and steps into the discussion that we need to be having.

GREENE: What does that mean in practice? Does it mean supporting new policies? Does it mean just creating spaces where people feel safe to talk about this? What are you hoping for?

HOLLAS: Yes to all of that.

GREENE: All of that. OK.

HOLLAS: You know, certainly, policy is necessary. But we also have to have that cultural change. And I think that's really a role that the church can step into because the church is a place where we have people of different political persuasions and different sides on this issue that are still gathering together.

GREENE: You know, this is an issue I've covered a lot listening to people around the country. I was in Florida, covering the one-year anniversary of the shooting at the high school in Parkland. And I met a young man named Patrick Petty. He lost his little sister in the shooting at the high school. He still believes passionately in gun rights - and not just the right to have a hunting rifle - I mean the right to powerful weapons, the kind that actually killed his sister. And so this is what he told me.


PATRICK PETTY: The Second Amendment was written for us, the citizens, to protect ourselves against a tyrannical government. That may not happen for 50, hundred - even a thousand years. But the moment you take that right away, you open the door for it to happen.

GREENE: I was just so struck because this young man lost his sister but has very strong views about gun rights. You don't need to convince him of the pain that guns can cause. What - how would you start a conversation with him?

HOLLAS: When I listen to him, I hear fear. You know, I hear that he's really afraid of a government. He's really afraid of losing his sense of freedom. So let's look at that fear. And he even said in his own statement that it might not happen for thousands of years. So is there a way that we can set that aside and hold that and deal with what's happening in our reality and really be able to say, is having a criminal background check on all gun sales going to lead to a tyrannical (ph) takeover by the government?

What can we do now that can stop the slaughter, that can stop - what we have right now are these - they're really human sacrifices on this altar of the gun god. And to be able to hear and to listen, to know that he's afraid - and we're all afraid. But we can do things. There are things that we can do that will make us safe. And it doesn't mean the extreme position that's often taken and promoted by the gun lobby.

GREENE: Whenever you leave this job, what would make you feel like you've done something, you've been successful?

HOLLAS: I've actually been thinking about this question a lot in the last 24 hours because my answer is - you know, my hope is that I work myself out of a job. And one answer is that the church is engaged, that every church is actually engaged and involved in this, that the rhetoric around gun violence has died down and that we're able to pass laws and that there's a sense of safety that starts to return. You know, the real work is going to take a long time. And the real work is kind of this deep soul work. And what is it that's making us so afraid? And it's something that happens over time. How do we heal these wounds that have led to such violence?

And these aren't wounds that have just happened today. These are wounds - you know, our country was founded with violence. You know, we came in with guns, and we killed the inhabitants of the people that were here. So this is a big problem - just dealing with violence that is happening. But I have a lot of hope because I see - I think the consciousness of the planet is rising. I think we can get beyond kind of the talk that we've been in and try to find new ways.

GREENE: Rev. Hollas, thank you so much for your time.

HOLLAS: Thank you.

GREENE: We were talking to the Rev. Deanna Hollas. She's the new minister of gun violence prevention for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.