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Forging peace: The sacred, cathartic act of Guns to Gardens

Presbyterian partners gather in Salt Lake City for the transformative work of turning guns into garden tools

Salt Lake City – Temperatures rose to 98 degrees in Salt Lake City on Sunday, June 28. But that didn’t stop Presbyterians from gathering around a 2,000-degree furnace to watch a 22-caliber long rifle sawn apart, melted, and beaten into a new shape — a garden tool. The whole process took about an hour and a half. 

“It takes time and effort to change something that destroys life into something that grows life,” said Fred Martin, the blacksmith on site from RAWTools

Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

Guns to Gardens, the event co-sponsored by First Presbyterian Church of Salt Lake City, the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and RAWTools, traces its history to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012. Inspired by the prophetic image of beating swords into plowshares, Mennonite Pastor Mike Martin dreamed of a way to put Isaiah 2:4 – “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks”– into practice.

Martin began Guns to Gardens to help people reimagine the world as one that turns from death to life, where swords become plows and guns are turned into garden tools. Martin founded RAWTools, which coordinates blacksmiths across the country for this unique program. The program grew after best-selling Christian author Shane Claiborne joined the effort. He and Martin co-authored the book, Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence.

Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

Aware of the need to expand the church’s gun violence prevention efforts beyond policy to action, the 225th General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in June 2022 launched the Presbyterian Decade to End Gun Violence and became the first denomination to commend the Guns to Gardens program as a faithful witness for congregations. The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF) advocates for this work, offering training programs, action circles, and outreach efforts.

Those in the crowd that gathered Sunday in a shaded alley next to First Presbyterian Church of Salt Lake City came for different reasons. Courtney Hunter, a commissioner from Salem Presbytery of North Carolina, was interested in the event because she had lost family members to gun violence. Meredith Welfare, a young adult advisory delegate (YAAD), from South Carolina’s Providence Presbytery, heard about the event through her work with the Domestic Engagement Committee and wanted to learn more. Welfare believes we need to “destigmatize the issue of guns and get new perspectives on the topic.” Another YAAD, Riley Varn from Colorado’s Pueblo Presbytery, attended because, “It’s a really important issue, important to understand, and this is a powerful symbol — turning guns to plowshares. That’s why I’m out here.”

“It’s a really important issue, important to understand, and this is a powerful symbol — turning guns to plowshares. That’s why I’m out here.” — YAAD Riley Varn

Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

Attendees are invited to take the hammer in their own hands and beat the glowing hot gun metal. Survivors of gun violence are given the first chance with the hammer. A mother whose son died by suicide pounded the long rifle. A young Latina whose cousin was killed by gun violence also took a turn. Laurie Lyter Bright, executive director of PPF, donned the safety glasses next. Moved to tears by what she describes as a “cathartic experience,” she said, “it’s truly a sacred act.” Encouraged by their mother, Heidi Jo Prior, 8-year-old Ari and 4-year-old Silas also took turns participating in this transformative ritual of peace-making. (see photos of Ari and Silas—got permission to publish)

Guns are surrendered for these events for a variety of reasons. A parent who bought a gun during the pandemic worries about having it in their home with children around. After being used in a suicide, loved ones need the gun out of the house and need this ritual to grieve. A former hunter who no longer feels able to safely handle guns with grandchildren around needs a way to get rid of the guns that will ensure they don’t end up back on the streets.

“It’s truly a sacred act.” — Laurie Lyter Bright

Nancy Halden, communications director for the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah and member of Community of Grace Presbyterian Church, spoke about how difficult it is to get gun control legislation passed in Utah with a super majority of Republicans who vote with the gun lobby. Yet, Halden added, a majority of Utahans — Republicans and Democrats — agree on universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders (red-flag laws). “If we could get these laws passed it would save a lot of lives here.” Halden said. “Our biggest problems are suicide and domestic violence. Over half of the suicides here are by gun; 85% of our gun deaths are by suicide.”

Margery Rossi. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

Margery Rossi, PPF’s minister of gun violence prevention, said the Guns to Garden events are making a real difference. “We can’t keep up,” she said, referencing all the requests to host these events across the country. RAWTools is recruiting and training more and more blacksmiths. PPF is running more and more action circles, training others how to host these events and work with congregations. Because the issue of guns and gun violence is politically controversial, Rossi said, “We need people who have courage, willing to take risks, and willing to go about this from a lens of peacemaking.”

“We need people who have courage, willing to take risks, and willing to go about this from a lens of peacemaking.” — Margery Rossi

If churches want to host their own Guns to Garden event, Rossi encourages them to go to PPF’s website. Under the Gun Violence Resources Page, people can register for PPF’s action circles where they will walk you through the process of how to host an event.

“The long-term vision is to expand these events,” Rossi added, “to actually use the garden tools we create, to dig in the dirt of communities that have been traumatized and devastated by gun violence, and helping people heal.”