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Curious conversation

America’s at an impasse in the gun legislation debate. What if churches led the way through honest curiosity, Eliza C. Jaremko wonders?

Gun Display Stands. Pistols for sale in the store.

I am a native of Western Pennsylvania and currently serve a congregation in Southern New Jersey, but 15 years ago, my first ministerial call took me to the great state of Texas. My great adventure to the Lone Star State didn’t just include learning a new dialect, eating spicy food, and wearing cowboy boots (of which I enjoyed all three). I also discovered a culture around guns that was very different from any place I previously lived.

During my first year there, I had an encounter I still think about today. Single at the time, I was asked on a date by a person of faith I met at a book club. On our date, one of his opening questions was: “So what kind of guns do you own?” I was completely taken aback. I had never considered touching a gun, let alone owning one. When I expressed this, his response came back in shock: “So you don’t own any weapons?”

The question on that first date made me uneasy – I am too nervous that I would accidentally hurt myself or others if I were to own a weapon, let alone be in the presence of one. Yet, the question also made me curious about the culture of this person of faith: Why would someone who trusts in God want to own a weapon?

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I many of my friends enjoyed hunting with their families for sport and game. Our schools even had a day off for the first day of deer hunting season. Yet in the new environment of my first call, I met folks who had a different relationship with guns. Some carried them for protection, some for sport, and some out of habit. I met those who open-carried and those who conceal-carried (including an elderly lady in the church choir). I frequented worship spaces, where worshipers were politely asked to remove all firearms before entering. Weapons were carried on belts and in purses beside wallets or keys — just part of what you took with you for the day. I got curious: what did one expect to encounter on a daily basis that would prompt you to carry a gun?

I wonder if we all need to get more curious with each other about our relationship to guns — both personally and culturally. Our national conversations about guns are at an impasse, and too often it seems like there’s no hope of fixing our gun crisis or stopping mass shootings. One side doesn’t understand why anyone needs a gun and the other side doesn’t understand why they wouldn’t need one. One side wants stricter gun control laws and the other wants looser gun control laws. While I, admittedly, tend to fall on one side of this, I wonder if we will ever get anywhere if we don’t get curious and ask questions. Can we ever understand the roots of this crisis if we cannot talk to one another?

Can we ever understand the roots of this crisis if we cannot talk to one another?

The weekly Bible study I lead at my current church is attempting to get curious about gun culture. Feeling hopeless by the mass shootings and rising violence in our nearby city, our group has embarked on difficult conversations. We were intrigued by the Outlook’s June issue on gun violence and chose it as our spring/summer study. While waiting for our copies to arrive, we found resources on gun violence from the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. Written in 2016, the PPF study gave us a basis for discussion on the presence of guns in our culture, statistics, straw purchases, and the involvement of firearms in our rising suicide rates. Our June Presbyterian Outlook issues arrived last week, so this week we began our 6-week journey through the thought-provoking articles. Using the discussion questions in the back of the issue, we’re hoping to find guidance to faithfully respond to the epidemic as Christian believers.

While I cannot offer the answer, I do invite you to ask questions — to engage in meaningful conversations within our own congregations. Perhaps our curious conversation might be small steps in moving past our fears of one another other.