Angelica Alzona
Angelica Alzona
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Beyond Thoughts and Prayers

The United Methodist Church takes on gun violence in America

by
Maggie Phillips
August 17, 2022
Angelica Alzona
Angelica Alzona

Gun violence is a distinctly American problem in search of a distinctly American solution, and the United Methodist Church (UMC) is nothing if not distinctly American. It was founded in the United States in 1784, shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, and four years before the Constitution was ratified. Its founding philosophy was one of individual change through participating in society—and this was the governing principle at work recently in Pittsboro, North Carolina, where UMC pastor Brent Levy hosted an ecumenical evening of prayer and commitment to action to end gun violence, two weeks after the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting.

Pittsboro may not be an intuitive place to cover the response to Uvalde, which is nearly 1,500 miles away. However, as a microcosm of the gun control debate, North Carolina is illustrative. The Wall Street Journal listed North Carolina as one of the top states whose population has grown as a result of the COVID-19 mass migrations from blue to red states, but the picture is more complicated than that. Also in the top half of states for firearm injury deaths, the state has a Democratic governor and Republican-controlled legislature. This November, it has a seat up for grabs in a race that, as of this writing, may help tip the balance in the U.S. Senate in the Democrats’ favor, even as the Republicans look poised to sweep the House.

As I drove to meet Levy, I passed thick forests, rolling bucolic hills intersected by picket fences, inns, and spas, historical markers for Revolutionary War sites, and a yard sign for the Trump-backed Republican Senate candidate Ted Budd. At a traffic light, I waited behind a painting truck with a “Let’s Go Brandon” decal. When I arrived at the place where Levy and I had arranged to meet, a genteel shopping center in nearby Chapel Hill, I was greeted by a “We Believe” window sign cataloging the proprietors’ putative progressive values. Inside, a non-negligible number of patrons wore masks, a much less common site in the more rural area of the state from which I had come.

It was stage 4 of the Tour de France, and the TV above the bar at the cycling-themed Breakaway Café was showing the day’s 171.5-kilometer race from Dunkirk to Calais. It was also the day after Independence Day, when a gunman opened fire on a parade in Highland Park, Illinois, killing seven. Levy had come in response to an email I had sent asking about Swords into Plowshares, the June 9 interfaith prayer vigil he had co-hosted with Presbyterian Church USA pastor the Rev. Andrew Taylor-Troutman.

“I think it was like this table, actually,” Levy said of where we were seated, describing how he and Taylor-Troutman met to design the service that would become Swords into Plowshares, which took place at Taylor-Troutman’s Chapel Hill church, Chapel in the Pines. Levy’s church, The Local Church, is what is known as a church plant. The congregants came from a larger UMC church in Chapel Hill, Levy said, intending to establish a satellite campus in Pittsboro. As the congregation took shape, establishing relationships in the area, it became evident that The Local Church could and should be its own entity, he said, in order to best serve the community taking shape in its new location.

Although Levy and The Local Church are something of a spinoff congregation, holding Sunday services in a local charter school in the absence of their own brick-and-mortar location, Levy is far from alone. For about six to nine months before the ecumenical prayer vigil was conceived, he said he had been meeting at Breakaway Café with a group of other pastors, one Presbyterian and two nondenominational, for a monthly breakfast, “just for time together, to share.” Levy said the negative growth in mainline Protestant denominations, and in organized religion in general, can create a competitive atmosphere as clergy compete for scarce congregations. “You have to keep it in check,” he said. “Which is why these breakfasts, for me, were so important. Just to remember what’s important.” Levy said that meant mutual encouragement, citing the words of the Apostle Paul: to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep. “That allowed us to really connect on a deep level and trust one another,” he said.

It was this community through which Levy and Taylor-Troutman had developed a relationship, and which enabled Swords into Plowshares to come to fruition. It was a likely ecumenical partnership. The latter’s denomination, a more progressive wing of Presbyterianism, voted this summer at its 225th General Assembly to conduct a 10-year campaign to end gun violence, and to engage with companies in which its foundation and Board of Pensions invest, including Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods. “Commend and give thanks” for the corporations’ actions, read the gun violence committee recommendation. The assembly resolution noted that these companies “sell guns not classified as semi-automatic and assault-based weapons” (classifications that both Second Amendment defenders and some gun control advocates describe as lacking in specificity).

“A couple different things converged, I think, to make the event happen,” Levy said. In addition to his monthly breakfast klatch, there was the church’s anti-racism committee, which had begun almost exactly two years ago, after the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It had begun as an ad hoc task force, spearheaded by a woman who was interning at The Local Church at the time. Although she herself is Black, The Local Church is mostly not. “We wanted to discern as a mostly white church how to respond well,” Levy said, “But beyond response, how do we not let ‘sparkler syndrome’ happen.” It is a term he learned from one of his mentors, and an apt one for the day after the Fourth of July, meaning to quickly extinguish after shining with a brief, dazzling brightness.

Levy recounted how two nights after the events in Uvalde, The Local Church’s anti-racism committee convened one of its regular meetings. It was here that one member, a onetime prospective nun whom Levy describes as “a firecracker” of a woman, said, “Brent, we need to do something. We need to have something.” Levy said she suggested talking to other churches about an ecumenical event, “a night of prayer, or something, we could do.”

On one issue, the UMC is clear. Its 2016 Book of Resolutions, the publication that contains the church’s most recent policy positions and resolutions on various issues, includes a plank on its commitment to end gun violence, which is a combination of practical and theological calls to action.

According to Levy, this planted a seed, and he thought of his friendship with Taylor-Troutman (“the first person I called” early the next morning after the meeting, he said—“it wouldn’t have come together without Andrew”). The two pastors’ busy schedules and the hectic nature of the end of the school year for many people meant putting a date on the calendar around two weeks after the Uvalde shooting made headlines. Levy thought this was serendipitous, keeping the May 24 tragedy “in front of people when the world wants to move on to whatever the next thing is.”

The two men set a date, and began reaching out to local pastors and community leaders, leveraging their existing connections to create Swords into Plowshares.

Ecumenical orientation notwithstanding, from its inspiration to its inception and realization, Swords into Plowshares was firmly within the Methodist tradition.

When Anglican clergyman John Wesley initially set out to revitalize the faith, stripping the Church of England back to what he identified as the practices of the earliest Christians, his goal was not to found a new denomination. That’s according to a 2020 BBC radio panel about Wesley and the English origins of what we know today as American Methodism. The panel’s experts, with backgrounds in history and theology, explained that the term “Methodist” itself started out as an epithet for the various parallel revivalist movements that developed independently throughout 18th-century Britain, all seeking a more earnest faith that streamlined the emotion of personal experience with the appeal of engaging sermons. In Wesley’s case at least, the panelists described how it also meant bringing about an ongoing, sincere conversion in the heart of the individual believer  through (methodically) following a lively spiritual regimen: active participation in a community of other believers, liturgical prayer, regular reception of communion at the parish, and frequent hymn-singing, all while remaining under the doctrinal aegis of the Church of England.

That last specification changed after the Christmas Conference of 1784, a definitive turning point for the movement, which took place thousands of miles from the country of its inception. Wesley had previously selected an ordained Anglican clergyman named Thomas Coke as a superintendent to oversee his brand of Methodism’s missionary presence in America. Wesley asked Coke to ordain and elevate to the position of co-superintendent an itinerate preacher he had commissioned named Francis Asbury. Asbury, however, insisted on being democratically elected by his colleagues, and the two men organized a December gathering, in which all the other itinerant preachers whom Wesley had commissioned to spread his message throughout the fledgling country assembled in Baltimore on Christmas Eve. By Dec. 27, Asbury was ordained superintendent. Within months, Coke, his erstwhile co-leader, had returned to England, and three years later, against Wesley’s wishes, Asbury adopted the title of bishop.

This wasn’t just an organizational overhaul. It was the beginning of a new, and thoroughly American, church calling itself the Methodist Episcopal Church in America. The Christmas Conference pared the Church of England’s doctrinal 39 Articles of Faith down to 25, including an article recognizing the authority of the president of the United States, Congress, and the Constitution. The assembly set a precedent by putting preeminence on debate and democratic consensus on matters of faith, as opposed to Wesley’s direct personal guidance. And as the young country grew, so did Methodism. In anachronistic terms, Wesley was what we might call a Remainer during the Revolution, supporting the monarchy and urging Methodists in the colonies to do the same. But after the Christmas Conference founding, Methodism soon evolved into an establishment American faith. It became one of the mainline Protestant denominations: the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant “WASP” denominations to whom membership was often a prerequisite for entry into gentile society. Along with Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans, Methodists simultaneously have a history of supporting socially progressive causes (Wesley was an abolitionist, and The Local Church homepage mentions specifically that it is anti-racist and pro-LGBTQ+), while existing in the popular imagination as casserole-loving, mom-and-apple-pie, all-American squares. This tension is evident in perhaps the two most high-profile Methodists in recent American life: Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush.

Levy describes his congregation, like North Carolina itself, as purple (“on the blue side of purple for sure,” he said). The UMC itself might also be described as purple, causing years of ongoing speculation about an imminent formal schism, as its more conservative elements either independently splinter off or persistently seek greater clarity from the UMC on controversial social issues. On one issue, however, the UMC is clear. Its 2016 Book of Resolutions, the publication that contains the church’s most recent policy positions and resolutions on various issues, includes a plank on its commitment to end gun violence, which is a combination of practical and theological calls to action. The book’s guidelines on guns range from recommendations for prayer and pastoral care, to calling for safe gun storage by gun owners, and even specific items for legislative advocacy by church members, such as universal background checks, a federal minimum age of 21 to purchase firearms, and a ban on large-capacity magazines.

Swords into Plowshares took place in the same spirit, blending communal prayer and connection with a commissioning of its 60-strong attendees to go out into the world to effect real change. For the liturgy, Levy said he and Taylor-Troutman were concerned with how to “name the reality and not dance around it,” and to “offer space for lament, while also inviting people to move toward hope and action.” So, Levy said, the event began with a reading from the gospel of John, Chapter 20, in which the resurrected Christ appears to his disciples, still bearing the wounds of the crucifixion. He wishes them peace before he commissions them to go out to the world to forgive the sins of others. Next, Levy said, came passing the peace, a traditional element of Methodist Sunday worship in which congregation members greet each other by saying something along the lines of, “The peace of Christ be with you,” with the response, “And also with you.” He also encouraged attendees to get the name of someone they greeted, “as a way of forming bonds of community,” he said, “And recognizing that you’re not alone. The talking heads and the lack of a lot of nuance in the political sphere can isolate us, make us feel very alone.” According to Levy, this part went on for five to seven minutes. “Like any good passing of peace,” he said with a smile, “we had to call everybody back.”

Next in the service, Levy and Taylor-Troutman adapted the Litany in the Wake of a Mass Shooting, put out by an Episcopalian group of clergy, Bishops Against Gun Violence. After 13 people were killed in a shooting at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, in 2018, the bishops developed the Litany, which they update after each U.S. mass shooting. In the Litany, each successive tragedy is briefly described, followed by the prayer, “Give to the departed eternal rest. Let eternal light shine upon them.” Levy described how different individuals from nearby churches and community organizations, took turns reading parts of the Litany prayer. Over what he said was about 25 minutes, the church’s worship leader, Leah Benn, interspersed every few iterations of the prayer’s catalog of suffering and loss with the refrain from “Drive Out the Darkness,” a song by The Porter’s Gate, a theologically diverse Christian creative music collective and self-described “worship project,” with a sound that is more Avett Brothers than Amy Grant.

After the Litany, there followed an anointing with oil, which the UMC’s Book of Worship places in a healing context. “The oil points beyond itself and those doing the action to the Holy Spirit,” the Book of Worship explains. “And the presence of the healing Christ, who is God’s anointed one.” During this time, Levy said attendees could be anointed personally, write a prayer on index cards that were provided, come forward to light a candle, or simply remain in personal silence. For those who chose anointing, “we anointed hands, primarily,” he said. Levy noted that it was the Thursday after Pentecost, which many Christians recognize as “the birthday of the church,” when the gospels describe the descent of the Holy Spirit, who Methodists assert “proceeds from the Father and the Son,” upon the first disciples, empowering them to go out and change the world after Christ’s ascension into heaven. Anointing with oil can mean different things in different Christian denominations, but for Levy, it meant a charge, a small amount of oil accompanied by a blessing and what he referred to as “a sending”: “It was really powerful to hold people’s hands,” he said, “Look them in the eye and say, ‘These are the hands of the risen Christ.’ You’ve been called to this moment.”

There is a more somber note to the oil, in Levy’s mind. He brings up the instance in the gospels when, shortly before his death, a woman anoints Christ with oil, a foreshadowing of the preparation for impending burial. There was an element of this gravity to the anointing of Swords into Plowshares, what Levy calls a reminder of “the cost of discipleship.” For him and Taylor-Troutman, he said, it marked the turning point in the service, from lament to action. In conjunction with the service, The Local Church put out a resource guide with next steps, which includes membership information for groups like Moms Demand Action, and recommendations and guidance for contacting North Carolina Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, both of whom voted in support of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which President Biden signed into law in June.

In a recent edition of his newsletter The French Press, David French wrote about the political “God gap” between secular and religious Democrats, a fundamental rift in perspective on the direction of the country. But what about when the values of religious and nonreligious liberals align? “While our nation and our families fragmented by gun violence need thoughts and prayers, we are also severely in need of action,” said The Local Church parishioner Brooke Davis in an email. “As a person of faith and an advocate, I believe the church can serve as a place not only of lament and solace, but as a community of movement and hope. Let us pray with you and for you, but not stop there. May we also link arms with you to make our homes and our communities safer.”

Proponents of serious gun control reforms often dismiss the phrase “thoughts and prayers” as an ineffectual bromide from the pro-gun right, a way of throwing up one’s hands on a life-and-death issue, and leaving it up to divine intervention. However, events like Swords into Plowshares seem to indicate that these advocates of gun control risk overlooking effective allies in the “thoughts and prayers” crowd.

“You’ve heard so much, I’m sure, about this idea of ‘thoughts and prayers aren’t enough,’” said Levy. “And while that’s true, we can’t discount the importance of prayer in that it orients us, anchors us, moves us to action.”

Taylor-Troutman agrees. “The crisis of mass shootings can seem overwhelming, even causing me to despair,” he said of the service via email. “The collaboration with The Local Church and other partners created a space for communal lament. Grief is not only more bearable in such a community of faith, there can even be a spiritual alchemy, where despair turns to hope. I realize how vacuous ‘thoughts and prayers’ can sound, yet I have already seen our community galvanized around the issues of gun control, in part, because of this event. Swords into Plowshares renewed my faith that bringing people together for worship can inspire faith into action.”

In the Methodist tradition there is, Wesley once wrote, “no holiness but social holiness.” It is a famous line in Methodist circles, and one that Levy takes to heart. “Social holiness not only means there’s no such thing as personal holiness alone,” he said, “There has to be community, but also the way that our faith is active, and that it necessitates moving toward action, toward social justice, which has been thrown around a lot. But what I appreciate about our denomination, our tradition, is the rootedness of that word, that it’s not thrown around for political gain, it’s not thrown around because it’s trendy, but it’s very much at the core of who we are.”

If Levy’s brand of UMC is progressive, it’s a pragmatic, post-partisan one that is well-suited to its home state, where 55% of respondents to a recent Meredith College poll said that neither party does an accurate job representing its Americans’ views, and a third party was necessary. It’s also well within a tradition of “both/and” nuance that defines both the state and the UMC: A 1919 history of the state says that the first Methodist preacher in North Carolina never left the Church of England. This is something that is unlikely to have troubled its founder, who himself defined a Methodist succinctly as “one, who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart.” It’s a movement that was defined from the beginning by a way of life, rather than group or denominational affiliation. “Our faith is deeply rooted not in a political party, not in a trendy movement, but deeply rooted in the kingdom of God, and God’s dream for us and our community, a dream where swords are beaten into plowshares,” Levy said. “Not because we’re Democrats. Not trying to be performative, either, but because this is who we are.”

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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