This is a tale of two pastors and two mass shootings.
On a balmy June evening in 2015, a young man with a blunt bowl haircut walked into the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to join a Wednesday night Bible study. As the worshipers closed their eyes in prayer, the man fired at least 70 shots, killing nine people. Among the dead were Ethel Lee Lance, the mother of the Rev. Sharon Risher, and two of Risher’s cousins.
Two years later, on a bright Sunday morning in November, a man in a skull face mask fired some 700 rounds outside and inside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, leaving at least 20 people injured and 26 dead. A pregnant woman, her unborn baby and the 14-year-old daughter of the church’s pastor, Frank Pomeroy, were among those killed.
This is also a tale of two very different responses to tragedy and trauma.
Both pastors buried their dead, mourned their incalculable losses, read their Bibles, prayed and eventually returned to their ministries. But Risher, a nondenominational Christian pastor, dedicated herself to gun-law reform and reducing access to weapons. Pomeroy, a Southern Baptist, armed and trained his church members and routinely wears his weapon in the pulpit.
“To me, being a follower of Jesus means that I will always advocate for nonviolence,” Risher told me from her home in Charlotte, North Carolina, just a few days after the sixth anniversary of her mother’s murder. “My thinking is, I don’t condemn anyone for owning a gun, but I want people to realize the power of the violence they hold in their hand when they have a gun. And that just because you have a right to own a gun does not mean you have to exercise the right to use it.”
Pomeroy, who has a military background and grew up hunting, sees carrying a gun as an extension of his responsibility to protect his flock. He is both licensed and trained to use a handgun and often carried one before the shooting at his rural church.
“God has endowed some of us with the capability to be a warrior and others not,” he said, sitting at his dining room table during a video interview. “Some are on the frontline, and some are in the supply room. Both are equally important, but they’re gifted in different ways. And that’s why it’s important that we go to the Lord and seek what we’re supposed to do individually. And then if he says, yes, carry that firearm, I have no problem carrying that firearm.”
How did these two Christian leaders come to such opposite conclusions? Both read the same Bible, worship the same God and have suffered unfathomable losses to unspeakable violence at the hands of disturbed individuals who managed to acquire legal firearms. Yet on the issue of guns, there is a gulf between them. And, perhaps what’s most important, Risher’s and Pomeroy’s dividing paths highlight two very different relationships between guns and God in America today.
Americans’ passion for the right to bear arms has a long and well-known history. But the relationship between religion and guns is often obscured by the horror and tragedy of mass shootings like those that terrorized the Charleston and Sutherland Springs congregations. However, activists, scholars and pastors now point to a shift in the relationship between religion and guns, with more people of faith realizing that despite a range of views on the proliferation and use of guns, they have a theological and moral imperative to speak out on the issue. Even so, security-training companies say houses of worship make up the fastest-growing segment of their business as more churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are arming their congregations.
“The cross and the gun give us two really different versions of power,” said Shane Claiborne, a Christian activist and co-author of “Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence.” “One of them says, ‘I’m willing to kill,’ and the other one says, ‘I’m willing to die.’”
Religion’s relationship to guns
As a pastor who owns and carries a gun, Pomeroy is not an outlier. Few studies examine gun ownership and religion, but scholars who have explored the subject see a definite link.
“Religion does matter to gun ownership, but not in any one simplistic way,” said David Yamane, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University who found that evangelical Protestants were more likely to be gun owners compared with mainline Protestants, members of other religions and people with no religious affiliation. “The connection between gun ownership and religion is different depending on whether you are talking about religious behaving, belonging or believing.”
Yamane found, for instance, that Americans who hold more theologically conservative beliefs are more likely to own guns, but those who are more actively involved with their house of worship’s congregation are less likely to own guns. “These differences are essential to keep in mind if we want to have an accurate understanding of the connection between religion and guns,” he said.
The Pew Research Center found in a 2017 survey that about 4 in 10 white evangelicals own a gun, the highest share of any religious group, and that 74 percent of all gun owners in the U.S. agree with the statement that their right to own a gun is essential to their sense of freedom. Today, only three states and Washington, D.C., prohibit firearms inside places of worship, according to the Giffords Law Center.
Overall, shootings in houses of worship are rare, but they are becoming more frequent. According to a database published by The Washington Post, 95 people have died in a mass shooting at a place of worship in the U.S. since 1966, and more than half of those people were killed in the past five years.1 The impetus for these rampages ranged from domestic disputes — the motivation of the Sutherland Springs killer — to religious- or race-based hatred — the Mother Emanuel shooter hoped to start a race war. Meanwhile, FBI data shows a 65 percent increase in hate crimes2 at churches, synagogues, temples and mosques from 2014 to 2019,3 while the Faith Based Security Network notes a 60 percent increase in “non-accidental deaths” at houses of worship between 2014 to 2017.
The perpetrators of these shootings have targeted houses of worship indiscriminately. In the past decade, shootings at houses of worship with more than one fatality include:
- Oak Creek, Wisconsin — On Aug. 5, 2012, a man belonging to several white supremacist groups shot and killed six people and wounded four at a Sikh gurdwara. A seventh person died of his injuries in 2020.
- New York City — On Aug. 13, 2016, two people, including an imam, were shot outside a mosque.
- Antioch, Tennessee — On Sept. 24, 2017, a man shot and killed a woman outside Burnette Chapel Church of Christ. He entered the church and wounded at least six others before another worshiper held him at gunpoint until police arrived.
- Pittsburgh — On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman killed 11 people and wounded six on a Saturday morning, the Jewish sabbath, at the Tree of Life synagogue that housed three congregations. It is the deadliest shooting at a synagogue in American history.
- Poway, California — On April 27, 2019, a 19-year-old man posted an anti-Semitic screed online before walking into a synagogue on the last day of Passover and shooting and killing one worshiper and wounding three more, including the rabbi.
- White Settlement, Texas — On Dec. 29, 2019, a man shot and killed two worshipers during a morning service at the West Freeway Church of Christ. A member of the church’s security team, licensed to carry, shot and killed the perpetrator. The incident was captured during live video streaming of the service and has been watched on YouTube and Twitter millions of times.
After every shooting, religious leaders appear in the media and call for peace and unity. Some, like Risher, call for “common-sense gun laws,” a term proponents of these measures prefer over “gun control,” which they say has a negative connotation. Others, including the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a member of former President Donald Trump’s faith advisory board, have no problem with their flock bringing guns to church for greater safety.
"I'd say a quarter to a half of our members are concealed-carry — they have guns and I don't think there's anything wrong with that,” Jeffress said on “Fox and Friends” after the Sutherland Springs shooting. “They bring them into the church with them ... if somebody tries that in our church, they might get one shot off or two shots off, and that's the last thing they'll ever do in this life.”
Ryan Burge, a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and an American Baptist Church pastor who has studied guns and religion, finds that political affiliation is a stronger indication of one’s views on guns than religion is, with Republicans more likely to support less legislation and Democrats in favor of more.
“Gun control is a fascinating issue in American faith, because the data points to a clear conclusion,” he wrote in 2020. “Religious leaders are, by and large, not guiding the views of their congregations on this topic ... Americans of all religious faiths are less supportive of gun control now than at any point in the last two decades.”
On the organizational level, most denominations have made statements against gun violence — and sometimes, against guns themselves — especially after mass shootings. But only the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has ordained a “minister of gun violence prevention,” the Rev. Deanna Hollas, who lives in a religious community outside Dallas.
Hollas felt called to this role when her daughter attended a Texas college that allows students to carry weapons on campus. Now she visits mainline Protestant churches across the country to speak out against gun violence and perform “disarmings” — the dismantling of firearms per Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives guidelines.
“Not everyone is going to lay down their guns,” she said. “But we are going to say there is a different way.”
While Hollas is the only known minister exclusively assigned to work on gun violence, she believes that more people of faith are taking up the issue.
“The good news is people are waking up to this,” she said. “Sight is being restored to the blind. The tools we have been using — that we are going to read and think our way out of gun violence — have not been effective. We are in the process of deconstructing that and realizing that we need to return to spiritual practices and embrace the faith of Jesus instead of the church of empire that we have inherited.”
The violence interrupters
Increasingly, religious leaders in favor of gun reform are framing their argument as anti-violence rather than anti-gun. Among these are Claiborne, the Philadelphia-based leader of Red Letter Christians, a faith-based organization that emphasizes the words of Jesus — which are printed in red letters in some Bibles — to oppose gun violence and other societal ills. Clairborne was raised in a hunting and gun-owning family but now travels the U.S. literally beating surrendered guns into garden tools and other implements.
“We're worshipping the Prince of Peace on Sunday and packing heat on Monday, sometimes even packing heat on Sunday,” he said a few days before traveling to Houston to dismantle guns collected by a local congregation. “Some of our idolatry of individual rights is at the heart of this too.”
Claiborne knows Christians who carry guns and bring them to church — 40 states have no restrictions on doing so. He said he understands Pomeroy’s decision to arm himself and his congregation but added that this doesn’t align with his understanding of the same faith.
“It's very reasonable to do what the pastor at Sutherland Springs did,” he said, noting that he does not know Pomeroy and does not want to judge him. “In fact, it's exactly what [Jesus’ disciple] Peter wanted to do when he picked up a sword to try to defend Jesus, and Jesus says, ‘Put your weapon away.’ For me, as a Christian, there’s no way that I can reconcile Jesus’ call to love our enemy with this idea that we’re going to stand our ground or kill our enemy.”
That is Risher’s conclusion, too. She said she has forgiven her mother’s murderer. “If I did not, it was going to eat me alive,” she said. “And I wanted to live. And I did not want to live as a victim.” Now she travels the country to encourage other people of faith to put down any weapons they may own.
“You know, as a person of faith, I believe prayer moves things,” she said in an interview at Duke Divinity School. “But it takes more than prayers to deal with the things that we have to deal with as a society right now. Yes, God gives us prayer, but he gives us the motivation and the willingness to take action.”
Claiborne’s actions have included organizing a peaceful protest and demonstration outside a Philadelphia gun store. Risher volunteers with Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Catholic priests, Muslim imams, Jewish rabbis and other religious leaders have walked the streets of cities plagued by gun violence in the hope of interrupting the violence.
The Rev. Michael McBride is one of those pastors. As director of the Live Free Campaign, an anti-violence and anti-mass-incarceration activist group, he and a cadre of San Francisco-area clergy routinely walk the streets of Oakland and other Bay Area cities where gun violence is routine. They do not focus on gun legislation, but on actions they hope will “interrupt” the cycle of violence.
“Gun control is one part of the conversation, but too many people in the gun-control community want gun control to be the lion’s share of the conversation,” he said. “I think at best it should be 25 percent of the conversation.”
McBride, who grew up in Hunter’s Point, a hot spot for gun crimes in the Bay Area, came to this work after seeing the results of gun violence up close. “Once you do a dozen funerals … it changed me,” he said. “I asked, ‘Is this the most that I could do?’”
Now his group holds “call-ins” — mediated conversations between gun offenders, faith leaders, crime victims, ER nurses and police — and organizes 12-month programs for gun offenders, or “peace cohorts,” that focus on working them into their communities. Gun-control legislation, he said, rarely comes up as a viable solution to urban gun crimes, especially when he is facing an anguished mother who wants to know why her son or daughter was shot.
The church, McBride said, should be an advocate for “common-sense gun legislation,” but it cannot end there. People of faith must also look at the causes of the violence — income inequality, mass incarceration, mental-health issues and trauma, among them.
“The church has to boldly proclaim the need for healing and peacemaking in our communities,” he said over a diner breakfast before heading to The Way Christian Center, a Berkeley church he and his family have led for three generations. “We have to use our pulpits and platforms to advocate for peace, for policies and programs. We have to scale up intervention to change lives.”
That’s a tall order for anyone, clergy or layperson. Shani Buggs, a professor at University of California, Davis’s Violence Prevention Research Program, said while some clergy are involved in violence-interruption programs, very few actively promote gun-reform laws.
“It’s a complicated issue for them,” she said. “It has become increasingly political.” And politics is often considered taboo in houses of worship, which can lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in campaigning — not to mention lose members who may disagree.
No one knows this better than the Rev. Rob Schenck. Schenck spent 20 years as a very public activist for Operation Rescue, the conservative Christian anti-abortion-rights group known for their graphic protests at women’s health clinics. He was also the president and founder of Faith and Action (now Faith & Liberty), a Washington, D.C., organization, which according to Schenck had 55,000 donors and a $2 million annual budget; the group’s aim was to increase Christianity’s influence on the U.S. government.
But in the 2010s, Schenck had a change of heart on abortion, same-sex marriage and guns — three issues central to evangelical identity. In 2018, he resigned from Faith and Action over differences about his anti-gun mission. He then founded The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to the German cleric’s theology and ethics, which Schenck says has 4,000 donors and a $400,000 annual budget.
Schenck is not daunted by the change. Instead, he uses his experience inside the evangelical world to talk to conservative pastors and congregations about their affinity for guns. Drawing on his time in Operation Rescue, he frames his argument as an extension of the pro-life movement.
“I’m not the first one to have this thought, but the right to life does not end when the baby is born,” he said from his office in Washington, D.C. “That’s the way to find common ground with Catholics, with Jews, with Muslims, with conservatives, with liberals, with conservative Christians, progressive Christians, mainline Christians.”
But it’s still a hard sell. Schenck was the main subject of the 2015 documentary “The Armor of Light,” which shows him trying to convince a room full of white evangelical clergy to join his side of the gun issue. They stare back at him as if he had asked them to fly to the moon and back.
“When I look into the eyes of those folks, I think they really genuinely believe that God wants them to own a gun,” he said.
Still, Schenck has hope.
Young evangelicals like Claiborne are more open to questioning and reframing the church’s relationship with guns than their parents or grandparents were. “They’re more skeptical about the Second Amendment and the pro-gun culture and more serious about what Jesus literally said,” said Schenck. “They think this question is worth looking at.”
‘The business of the church’
According to IBISWorld, an industry analyst, Americans spend $15 billion in gun stores annually. That includes everything from firearms and ammunition to cases, safes, apparel and accessories.
Many of these products link religion — most often Christianity — to the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Go to Amazon, Etsy, Walmart or any major retail chain and you will see clothes, flags, charm bracelets, wall plaques, license plate holders and just about everything else available with symbols and slogans declaring fidelity to God and guns. One company called Tactical Baby Gear sells a patch emblazoned with “God, Guns & Diapers” under the outline of an AR-15-style assault rifle.
Schenck likes to bring out a black-bound, leather Bible cover that opens up to reveal not the usual tissue-thin pages but a 9mm Glock — a gun literally wrapped in the word of God.
“In our defense of the Second Amendment,” Schenck asks in a video as he holds the Bible-as-gun-case, “are we in fact violating the Second Commandment?” In Protestant faiths, that commandment is “Thou shalt not make any graven image.”
And dozens of companies, from small mom-and-pop outfits to national organizations, offer security and firearms training specially tailored for pastors, ushers and greeters, and for teams of armed “guardians” or “gate keepers.” Agape Tactical offers a “Warrior Women” class for armed women in the pews and quotes the biblical book of Proverbs on its website: “A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.” One pastor told The Circuit Magazine, “Church security is becoming the business of the church.”
Barry Young is the vice president of church security for Strategos International, a security-training company based in Missouri and Texas. In 2015 — the year of the Mother Emanuel shooting — he said Strategos did church training sessions in 30 houses of worship. Now they do 300 annually, a number that spiked dramatically after the Sutherland Springs massacre.
Strategos, which is Christian in its mission and has since conducted training at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, approaches its work like a ministry. Instructors and trainees pray and sometimes worship together.
“We believe humility breeds capability,” he said in a phone interview from Kansas City, Missouri, where he is based. “I think you can tell how powerful somebody is by how gentle they are.”
In its two-day church training workshops, Strategos teaches that the use of guns is a sort of last resort, Young said. First, they focus on awareness and prevention — strategically placing greeters in the parking lot, training ushers to spot erratic behavior, reconfiguring the church’s locks and other existing safety measures and — most importantly, Young said — verbal de-escalation methods.
“We choose who we certify to carry, not the church,” Young said. “They must have a mindset for safety. If they don’t exhibit the right frame of mind” — for example, if they are too eager to shoot or too nervous to shoot — “then we won’t certify them.”
Young said Strategos declines to certify 2 to 5 percent of trainees because they do not pass this kind of “spiritual gut check.” And the majority — 85 percent — of its church workshops do not include guns, Young said.
“We will do it [gun training] if they ask,” Young said. “But I would rather a church have an unarmed security team that is trained than an armed security team that is untrained.”
Guns in the pulpit and the pews
Like everyone else in this story, Frank Pomeroy of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs looks at the relationship between guns and religion through the prism of his own experience. And that extends to losing members of his own congregation, including his daughter, to a disturbed man with a semi-automatic rifle.
In the media frenzy that descended on his white-walled church after the violence, Pomeroy feels he and other licensed, gun-carrying Christians have been unfairly portrayed as “ignorant hillbillies.” The decision to carry a gun in the pulpit, put about 20 of the church’s 187 members through security training and ensure 10 of them are armed every Sunday morning was made after prayer and reflection, he said.
He thinks it is a mistake to spiritualize a gun — an inanimate object — and likens his Kimber Micro 9 handgun to the automated external defibrillator that hangs on the church wall. The spiritual question isn’t whether it should be there, but how it should be used.
“The only spiritual aspect of this is the human condition,” Pomeroy said. “A person who wrongfully uses firearms to take a life has deeper issues than the firearm. They have sin problems and issues that need to be addressed on a spiritual level. The firearm itself is not the problem, it's the people holding those firearms.”
Today, First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs meets in a brand-new building. The old church was clapboard, and the shooter shot through its walls. The new building, which opened its doors in May 2019, is fortified limestone with sanctuary doors that can be locked at the press of a button.
Pomeroy hopes he never has to use his gun inside his church (he was away in Oklahoma City on the day of the shooting). Today he speaks publicly in other churches and on panels about church security. Sometimes people on the panel oppose him, which he welcomes as a means to de-escalate the political polarization in America.
When told about the Rev. Sharon Risher and how she came to a completely different understanding of guns through the lens of their shared Christianity, he said he would be open to talking to her about their shared experience as grieving survivors.
“If we don’t have an open mind and come to the table to have a conversation about it, then there’s no way to ever win,” he said. “And it isn’t about winning. It’s about doing what is best for people.”
“And I would pray for her,” Pomeroy adds. “Not to change her mind so much as that hopefully myself or someone like me is there to protect her when we’re needed because she wouldn't be able to protect herself.”
Art direction by Emily Scherer. Chart by Simran Parwani. Copy editing by Jennifer Mason and Curtis Yee. Photo research by Jeremy Elvas. Story editing by Sarah Frostenson.
This story is part of “Rethinking Gun Violence,” an ABC News series examining the level of gun violence in the U.S. — and what can be done about it.
CORRECTION (Nov. 5, 2021, 11:45 a.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 88 percent of gun owners said owning a gun was essential to their sense of religious freedom. This should have said that 74 percent of all gun owners agreed with the statement that owning a gun was essential to their own sense of freedom. The text has been updated.