It wasn’t a typical Protestant hymn.
Instead, those gathered for the ordination of Presbyterian Rev. Deanna Hollas lifted their voices to sing “If We Just Talk of Thoughts and Prayers,” written in the wake of the 2017 mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas:
If we just sing of doing good
And don’t walk through our neighborhood
To learn its hope, to ease its pain,
Our talk of good is simply vain.
The music was a fitting backdrop to Hollas’s ordination earlier this month as what is being touted as the nation’s first-known minister of gun violence prevention. The role is sponsored by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, which also presented her with a stole in flaming orange, the color worn by gun violence prevention activists across the country. In her new position, Hollas is tasked with providing pastoral care to people who are scared of becoming gun violence victims and mobilizing leaders in Presbyterian churches across the country for the ultimate aim of enacting gun reforms.
Indeed, Hollas’s new role is the latest in a series of high-profile activist forays by Protestant leaders since President Donald Trump took office, including a statement the National Council of Churches made denouncing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in October and the social justice- and civil rights-themed sermon Bishop Michael Bruce Curry delivered at the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry last year.
Progressive social justice work might be more widely associated with Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim faith communities, but mainline Protestants — a catch-all term for non-Evangelical Protestants like Presbyterians — have their own history of activism. And it appears to be increasingly on display in the age of Trump.
While nearly three-quarters of white Evangelicals support Trump, mainline Protestants as a community are a bit less supportive, and have cooled on the president since the election. Although mainline members are evenly split between approval and disapproval — with 48 percent saying they support the president, according to a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute — this measure has dropped nine percentage points since Trump’s inauguration.
In an ever-more polarized political climate, people like Hollas are reckoning with their personal beliefs by stepping into the arena of direct political action.
The Trace talked with Hollas this week about her plans as minister of gun violence prevention. (The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
Erin Schumaker: Some people tend to associate Christianity with the God-given right to own a gun, as the National Rifle Association has put it, not with gun violence activism. How did you get into this field?
Rev. Deanna Hollas: I grew up in the panhandle of Texas, where hunting was a part of life. A few years ago, Texas passed a law allowing guns to be carried on college campuses. My oldest daughter was going to be a junior at Texas Tech and I noticed that her friends saw this as an invitation to be armed. They had this notion that a gun was going to keep them safe and was the end-all be-all solution to every single problem. There was a real misunderstanding of what it takes to own a gun, and of the responsibilities, and quite frankly, the dangers involved.
You were part of a prayer vigil for gun violence victims outside the NRA’s annual convention in Dallas last year. The gun group also uses religious language, often as a call to arms. Do you have any thoughts on that? You’re using religion to fight against one another.
When the NRA is coming to your city and you’re a faith leader, you feel like you need to have a response. Our response was to have a prayer vigil that ran from the beginning of the convention to the end in front of Dallas City Hall. We wanted to remind folks that there is a price to weapons that we produce and own in this country. There is a loss of life involved.
I felt a call to ministry, but it wasn’t until the NRA convention that it all came together for me. One of the legacies Presbyterians have is this notion that everything is subject to corruption and idolatry. I question the God that they are praying to and whether or not there is idolatry involved when it comes to the gun.
The NRA messaging has seeped into our consciousness: Other people have guns, so I need a gun. Guns in the hands of everybody does away with our system of justice. The individual is judge and juror, and every crime is apparently now punishable by death. It undermines our system of law.
Is your new position part of a bigger trend of growing gun violence activism among Protestants?
The Presbyterian Church has been speaking out against gun violence for more than 50 years. I hope that we can speak out on our values enough to influence political decisions. We care about this. But it’s going to take work.
My [personal] confession is that I was asleep. I was not involved in the political process. More people just like me are getting to a point where they can’t sit it out. I failed to get involved until my own children were at risk. That’s what I hope the church is shifting on. We’re called to care about everybody and every child. We should have been speaking up when easy access to weapons and systemic poverty in communities of color led to violence.
Do you see your role as minister of gun violence as a political one?
The church has always been political. Jesus was executed by the state for speaking out against violence.
I’ll be out of a job is when the church is engaged, informed, and active in preventing gun violence on every level … It’s really about empowering churches in their local communities to take some type of action: publicly demonstrating through vigils, or in their prayer, worship, and education, and ultimately, influencing their lawmakers … I don’t care what party they’re in. I live in Texas. All of my representatives are Republican. It doesn’t stop me from writing them letters … Ultimately the goal of the church is to save lives. What I think is sad is that this has become a Democratic issue. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had choices on both sides of the aisle?