What role does the national church play after a mass shooting?

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has been responding to the "human-caused disaster" of gun violence for 24 years. 

Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

January 8, 2011: The day was clear and pleasant. Peaceful, even, as then U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords (D-Arizona) held her first “Congress in your corner” event at a Safeway in suburban Tucson, Arizona.

All that was shattered when a man armed with a pistol began shooting, killing six people and wounding 19, including Giffords.

One of those killed and three of the wounded were members of Tucson’s Northminster Presbyterian Church, where John Cheek, now retired, was associate pastor.

Cheek, a former police officer, was not at the rally but quickly learned of it — although not about any victims other than Giffords.

Then the phone rang; it was his oldest son, a Tucson police officer, with news that the judge who had been killed was one of Cheek’s close friends. He later learned that one of the church members had been killed and two wounded.

It wasn’t long before a team from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance was on the ground in Tuscon, and Cheek began his relationship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) agency as a recipient of its services and, eventually, a volunteer.

“I heard that PDA was in town, and I frankly didn’t understand why,” Cheek said in an interview from his home in Tucson. Now, Cheek is one of a significant corps of PDA’s national response team volunteers and has since worked on a variety of disasters, both natural and human, such as in Aurora, Colorado, and Uvalde, Texas.

PDA began responding to the “human-caused disaster” of gun violence after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, demonstrated the help that is needed after such events. The 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, was PDA’s first response to gun violence.

“Since then, we’ve probably responded to multiple dozens of events,” said Jim Kirk, PDA’s associate for national disaster response.

There’s been plenty of need. Between 2016 and 2022, there were 3,431 mass shootings in the United States according to, with another 246 mass shootings through mid-May 2023 — an average of more than 1.5 per day. Of those mass shootings, 23 have been mass murders. (A mass shooting is defined as four or more people injured or killed, not counting the shooter; a mass murder is four or more deaths, again not counting the shooter.)

“We respond to the human-caused events the same way we do to natural events,” Kirk said. “Our responses can look differently depending on what the request is, but generally speaking, our response is focused on faith leaders and community leaders as they respond to the needs of their faith community.”

“We respond to the human-caused events the same way we do to natural events … [we are] focused on faith leaders and community leaders as they respond to the needs of their faith community.”

Typically, Kirk said, there is a Presbyterian connection to the event, but that is broadly defined. PDA doesn’t show up unannounced, but ordinarily confers with Presbyterian churches or leaders to first ask if its help is needed, and what it might be.

Many times, those involved – like Cheek – are surprised at the PDA call.

Kirk said they often have to describe what assistance the group can provide; sometimes it’s leadership and/or liturgical resources, and other times it is emotional and spiritual resources that can help the community cope with the event.

It can be dealing with an individual directly affected or with an ecumenical or interfaith clergy group to give them space to process and strategize on how to respond. It can be in person or virtual.

Gini Norris-Lane is the part-time stated supply pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Uvalde, a small town of about 15,000 where just over a year ago, a former student entered Robb Elementary School and killed 19 students and two teachers, wounding another 17.

While none of First Uvalde’s members were killed, one of the victims was a member’s grandchild. Norris-Lane says that’s an indication of how devastating an event like a mass murder can be in a small town.

“Even I was no more than two degrees of separation from many of the families whose children were killed or injured,” said Norris-Lane, who lives in Kerrville, almost two hours away.

“If you didn’t know the person, you knew one of the people grieving that person,” she said, just one day after attending many events on the first anniversary of the shooting.

Norris-Lane, who was somewhat familiar with how PDA could help, said one of the first things that happened was to hold a community conversation and forum for the ministerial alliance to help them understand how to help and what to expect.

“They really helped us understand that there is a natural recovery process for natural disasters and that there is also a different process, although there are some similarities, as communities recover from human-caused disasters,” she said.

Cheek added that PDA had greatly helped him. “They came to the church and they cared for me. They nurtured me through individual grief because I was a pastor trying to serve a church and I was in pieces because (my friend) John Roll had been killed.”

Also, one of PDA’s most important – and perhaps unique – ways to help is to be present for the long haul.

“Part of what PDA helped us understand is that there are immediate needs, but there are also going to be long-term needs,” Norris-Lane said. “You don’t have to rush and figure something out immediately. You take care of people’s spiritual and emotional needs immediately, but the effects will be long-term.

“And the church’s presence in the community is long-term,” she said.

While the exponential rise in gun violence has led to a volatile debate about legislation, Kirk said PDA doesn’t often run into this discussion when responding to gun violence-related events.

“What we find, or anecdotally what I find, is that the closer somebody is to the event, the more they’re focused on immediate needs and immediate impact,” he said. “But the further out you get from the epicenter, the more thoughtful people are, or the further you are, the more inclined you’re to say, we’ve got a problem.”

“Part of what PDA helped us understand is that there are immediate needs, but there are also going to be long-term needs.”

Where PDA has run into the gun debate is through its documentary “Trigger: The Ripple Effect of Gun Violence.

“That does often get pushback because the assumption is it’s anti-gun, and it really wasn’t produced to be anti-gun,” Kirk said. “It was produced to show the real-life toll of gun violence and to open up dialogue on meaningful engagement.

“I think there’s pretty much consensus that gun violence is a problem, but then you have the two extremes in terms of either ‘more guns’ or ‘no guns.’ The movie is really just meant to highlight the impact of gun violence and to open meaningful dialogue in addressing it.”

The reality of increasing gun violence, however, led the 225th General Assembly to direct that a “Trigger” sequel be produced, including a brief video that can be used in worship.

Kirk said discussion is just beginning on how to approach the directive.

He also acknowledged PDA hasn’t always had the desired impact. There have been times when help wasn’t accepted, often because “they didn’t know what they didn’t know.” He believes in most of those situations the PDA should have done a better job of outlining its capabilities.

But sometimes, “unintentionally the wrong thing was said at the wrong time. And instead of becoming a source of healing, we became a source of harm,” he said, “and that’s why we make sure that when we do send people out, they’re incredibly skilled or as skilled as they can be in reading the room.”

While PDA’s ability to respond to “human-caused disasters” such as gun violence may not be as well-known as some other denominational initiatives, Cheek sees that changing.

“Gun violence has become common enough that we are seeing a trend of presbyteries or synods inviting us in to teach about gun violence and community response to gun violence, not because they’ve suffered an event, but because they know that they might,” he said.

“Some people are not saying if, but when, and they’re asking us to come in and give them training that will help them when this happens to them.”

PDA’s work, along with two other PC(USA) agencies, is supported primarily by the One Great Hour of Sharing typically taken during Lent, and other direct contributions.