By Tyler Sprouse, TWK Communications Specialist
United Methodists in the Tennessee-Western Kentucky (TWK) Conference are taking concrete, meaningful action in the pursuit of gun reform.
On Sunday, August 6, at Calvary UMC in Nashville, the TWK Commission on Church & Society hosted a discussion, “Do No Harm: A Conversation about United Methodism and Gun Reform,” featuring three panelists: Bishop William T. “Bill” McAlilly, Rev. Ingrid McIntyre, and Rev. Keri Cress. Calvary UMC is just over a mile from The Covenant School which was traumatized by gun violence earlier this year.
Concerned United Methodists and community members joined their voices to call for real change to be enacted in Tennessee. The group strongly supports the potential Governor’s Special Session on Public Safety and Constitutional Rights.
“We are currently experiencing an epidemic of gun violence in this country,” said Bishop McAlilly, the Episcopal Leader of the TWK Conference. “As the people called ‘Methodists,’ working for gun reform is a vital part of our mission at this time and in this place.”
For folks living in Middle Tennessee, the gun violence epidemic hit home this year on March 27, when six people–three adults and three nine year-old children–were killed in a mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville. The Rev. Keri Cress, associate pastor of East End UMC and Metropolitan Nashville Police Department (MNPD) Volunteer Chaplain, was a first responder to the school shooting.
“Thirteen of us [chaplains] answered the call to go to the emergency room at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt,” said Rev. Cress. “I was in the room with the victims’ families, and I had to deliver the news that is every parent’s nightmare.”
During this moment of unspeakable grief and loss, she leaned upon God’s Spirit to help the bereaved continue to breathe.
“We were taking slow, deep breaths together,” said Rev. Cress. “We prayed and held hands, we sobbed heavily and sat stunned. We held the families close and held space for God to comfort them.”
In the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting, the cries of the ER were mixed and mingled with the cries of concerned citizens calling for change at the Tennessee State Capitol.
“Our cries at the Capitol building echoed the cries of those families with whom I sat,” Rev. Cress said. “When we gathered outside the halls of power in the days after the shooting, we were crying and shouting and raging for a world that is safe and kind, one in which little children can safely grow up.”
Since the tragedy in March, our conference has been hard at work advocating for significant gun reform.
Bishop McAlilly and the TWK Commission on Church and Society organized a letter writing campaign, encouraging people to write their local, state, and federal representatives calling for the passage of gun reform legislation. Lay and clergy leaders have organized discussions, Bible studies, and informational teaching sessions around gun policies. Conference teams have joined with other organizations to plan and participate in an upcoming Special Session Prayer Vigil on August 21 at the State Capitol building.
When asked why he has taken such an outspoken stance on this issue, particularly given its polarizing nature, Bishop McAlilly appealed to ways this crisis has affected him personally.
“In December of 2003, my nephew was shot and killed in the line of duty as a Mississippi police officer,” said the bishop. “That was so difficult for our family. And our conference was not only impacted by the shooting at The Covenant School. Last summer, we lost a dear sister in the faith, the Rev. Dr. Autura-Eason Williams, at the hands of gun violence.
“It makes no sense to me why we need automatic weapons in this country,” he continued. “I recognize everyone doesn’t agree, but we have lost our way in this country. As United Methodists, we are called to work for the common good.”
Throughout the discussion, the panelists stressed this work’s alignment with United Methodists’ identity as followers of Jesus.
“Our denomination’s Book of Resolutions calls on all United Methodists to work for gun reform,” said Rev. McIntyre. “This is consistent with who Jesus is and who he calls us to be. He spoke out prophetically against the powers of his day. We are called to do the same.”
“Jesus calls us to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves,’” said Rev. Cress. “How can I say I love my neighbor if I am unwilling to stand with them in this holy work?”
Before the conclusion of the conversation, the panelists were asked how local UMC congregations can engage in this ongoing action.
“Right now, the best work churches can do is to show up,” Rev. Cress reflected. “Contact your representatives, call Governor [Bill] Lee; use the resources we already have and prayerfully consider how best you can contribute.”
“Churches can also check out other organizations that have been doing this work for a long time, such as ‘Protect Kids Not Guns,’ ‘SMART,’ and ‘Awake TN,’” added Rev. McIntyre.
Conference local churches are hosting numerous events, such as the upcoming “gun buy-back” at Glencliff UMC in south Nashville, inspired by the words of the biblical prophet, Micah, who paints a vision of the coming reign of God’s peace in which people will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Micah 4:3).
“We are calling the event, ‘Swords Into Plowshares,’” said the Rev. Ingrid McIntyre, pastor at Glencliff UMC and long-time community organizer in Middle Tennessee. “We are going to literally melt down the guns people bring in and transform them into gardening tools.”
“Our local churches must form coalitions of the willing,” said Bishop McAlilly. “We need courage and holy boldness in our congregations for the sake of the common good. If we want abundant life for ourselves, we must work to ensure that that is a reality for others.”
Bishop McAlilly emphasized that, alongside the prophetic work of speaking out, churches must engage in the slow work of relationships.
“We need to learn again how to stay in the room with difference,” said the bishop. “This is hard, risky work. But it’s vital if we are to bring grace, hope, peace, and justice to a broken world.”
If you are interested in learning more and staying engaged in the work our conference is doing to confront the issue of gun violence, please fill out this form. Belle Meade UMC is hosting a similar conversation, “Care. Learn. Do.” on Thursday, August 17, at 6:00 p.m., with three panelists: Rev. Keri Cress, Dr. Kelsey Gastineau, and Representative Caleb Hemmer.