To the strains of the hymn “If We Just Talk of Thoughts and Prayers,” the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States ordained the Rev. Deanna Hollas as its first minister of gun violence prevention this month.
Hollas is believed to be the first person in the country to be given a national ecclesiastical role of this kind. And the choice of the hymn was a deliberate underlining of what she sees as a desperate need: to do more than react to the latest mass shooting with an offer of benedictions. That, she said, is not sufficient in a country where 40,000 people are killed by guns each year.
“The saying ‘thoughts and prayers’ has been co-opted by the gun lobby to keep the church from taking action so they can increase their profits,” Hollas, who was installed in her new role by the Presbyterian Church (USA) earlier this month, said in a recent interview. “While all that we do as Christians should be rooted in worship and prayer, it should not stay there. It is like breathing — worship and prayer is the in-breath, and action is the out-breath.”
A Texas native who describes herself as “no stranger” to gun culture, Hollas, 52, said she was committed to ensuring that Americans from all sides of the gun debate stop talking past one another. “No matter where you fall on this issue,” she said, “the important thing is that we remain in conversation with one another.”
From her place of ministry, Retreat House Spirituality Center in Richardson, Texas, Hollas will oversee about 800 supporters of gun violence prevention in all 50 states.
We asked her about her role and what she hoped to accomplish. The conversation was edited and condensed.
What is your background? And what makes you ready for this role?
I grew up in Plainview, Texas, where guns and hunting are part of the culture. My father owns multiple guns and property specifically for family hunting trips. My in-laws live on a farm in South Texas where shooting guns would often happen on a weekend trip. This background is what enables me to connect to gun owners.
I first went to seminary because I felt called to the ministry of spiritual direction, which is a ministry of listening. I feel this is what is needed most right now. We have lost our ability to listen to one another, to our bodies and, therefore, to God. Violence is the result of this separation. Spiritual practices can heal, repair, and restore us to right relationship and thus lead us away from violence and toward peace and love.
What exactly will you do in your new role?
My role is to encourage the church at every level to become informed and active in preventing gun violence, to provide pastoral care for victims and survivors, and to seek a spiritual response to resist violence and seek Christ.
I serve as a resource and an encourager and connector for pastors, elders, and others in the church so they are empowered to prevent gun violence. I have the best role, as I spend my days talking to so many different people all across the country who are committed to ending gun violence.
Do you expect to face resistance?
I expect resistance because when you talk about guns, you are tapping into the part of the brain that protects one’s identity. Guns and identity are linked for many people; that is why I have developed a spiritual practice that helps us shift our bodies from fight-or-flight mode and teaches us to welcome and hold with compassion all the sensations that arise in our bodies. When we connect with one another on the level of personal experience, it leads to empathy. Establishing empathy is key in peacemaking.
Do you feel daunted at all?
The church has always been political — Jesus was executed by the government for speaking against its violence and against the religious authorities that aligned themselves with this unjust system. That is still the role of the church today: to speak a word of peace into a world of violence.
I live in Texas, and I became involved in this movement because of the passing of a law that allowed guns on college campuses. My daughter was a student at Texas Tech at the time, and I saw how her friends and roommates viewed the law as an invitation to become armed.
Being familiar with guns, I knew from what they were saying that they did not have a realistic understanding of how a gun worked. They basically assumed that having a gun would turn them into Jason Bourne, ready to defeat any bad guy that came their way, but the reality is having a gun increases one’s chance of being shot.
And while legislation is an important part of the work, it is not what gets me up in the morning. I am more interested in creating the cultural change that is needed along with legislation.
What can other church congregations do?
There are so many churches that are doing great things that it is hard to pick just one. The one that is most on my heart today is one I am working with in Texas, St. Barnabas Presbyterian Church in Richardson. It is a congregation that has both far-left liberals and gun-loving Trump supporters worshiping together Sunday mornings.
Starting in September, this congregation will engage in a five-week study. Each week’s lesson will be led by a different member of the congregation so that a variety of folks will feel comfortable participating and to ensure that no one person’s individual agenda dominates the discussion.
When we can move beyond the rhetoric, we find that no Christian is a proponent of gun violence. Churches have been afraid to talk about gun violence [out of concern] it will cause people to leave, but we are called to shine light into darkness.
Why do you remain hopeful?
I entered seminary thinking I would just take two classes and get my diploma in the art of spiritual direction and that would be it. But God kept leading me toward ordained ministry, which didn’t make much sense at the time as I didn’t feel called to lead a congregation.
In fact, I was thinking about withdrawing my candidacy for ordination when the NRA came to Dallas last year for their annual convention. I was blessed to be part of a prayer vigil hosted by a group of interfaith leaders, which ran from the beginning of the convention to the end. It was during this vigil, on the steps of Dallas City Hall, that I gained clarity on my call to speak the word of God into the violence of the world.