Deanna Hollas’ daughter was in college in Texas in 2016 when that state enacted a “campus carry law,” allowing people 21 and older with concealed handgun licenses to take their weapons onto public university campuses.
That didn’t sit well with Hollas.
“I felt like she wasn’t going to be safe,” she said. Statistics show that the chances of being fatally shot increase when there’s a gun in the home. She thought they probably increased when one was in the classroom, carried by a student who may not have fully understood the risks. That worried her.
She joined Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, an organization that advocates for gun control, and started visiting lawmakers in Texas, petitioning for gun violence prevention efforts.
This month, Hollas – now the Rev. Deanna Hollas – was ordained by the Presbyterian Church USA, the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, as a minister of word and sacrament. Her new job title is gun violence prevention minister – the first position of its kind in the nation, the church says.
Making gun violence prevention a priority
The Presbyterian Church USA has more than 1.7 million members in more than 10,000 congregations, its website says.
Hollas, 52, who is based in the Dallas area, will oversee over 800 local Presbyterian gun violence prevention advocates across the country and work toward making churches more active in preventing gun violence, a role she says will be different for each place. She will help people at different levels of the church stay involved and informed about preventing gun violence.
The church had been outspoken about gun control since the assassinations of people like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy in the late 1960s, calling for stricter laws around the sale and possession of firearms.
In 1998, the church called on Presbyterians to work toward removing guns from their homes and communities, citing safety reasons.
And in 2010, it adopted a resolution urging its congregations to be active in preventing gun violence.
But the church had never hired someone to oversee its efforts, and work done at the top was not necessarily trickling down into individual congregations. In conversations with churchgoers, Hollas said, none could remember a time when their congregations had specifically spoken about gun violence.
“It’s the intentionality that’s hopefully going to make a change,” she said.
Moving beyond left vs. right
Hollas’ appointment comes in the midst of what some politicians and advocacy groups are calling a gun violence epidemic. CNN analysis shows that school shootings have been increasing over the past decade, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says almost that 40,000 Americans died by guns in 2017 – the highest level in almost 40 years.
Just this week, at least three people were killed in a shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California.
“Our role as a church is to not care and love ourselves but to care and love our neighbors,” Hollas said. And part of that is keeping them safe.
Hollas grew up around guns in Texas, so she has some familiarity with firearms. She’s not against them – she’s even had them in her home – but she wants to keep people safe.
“When I talk to folks that are generally gun-rights folks, the first thing they say is that we just want to take their guns away,” Hollas said. “And that’s not true.”
She is hoping that her background with guns will help her connect across both sides of the issue.
But ultimately, it’s not about being left or right, liberal or conservative. Being from traditionally conservative Texas, Hollas expected some opposition from gun-rights supporters in the church, but she said there hasn’t been any.
“I think it’s because people are just tired of this. People are tired of children being shot in their schools; people are tired of the high numbers of gun violence in communities of color; people are tired of dying by suicide,” she said.
The conversation, she admitted, sometimes gets stuck in liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right. And sometimes churches don’t want to talk about these divisive issues because they’re afraid of making waves – but she says that’s exactly what they should be doing.
“I want to move beyond red and blue and be about Christ,” she said. “This isn’t a political matter, it’s a matter of life and death, and what we’re called to do as Christians is to bring life.”