Boulder church collects guns, turns them into gardening tools
A Boulder, Colo., congregation is moving beyond thoughts and prayers to address gun violence. Called to action after a March 22 massacre at the King Soopers grocery store down the block, Community United Church of Christ is transforming trauma by getting guns off the streets.
On Sunday, June 13, Community UCC hosted a gun donation program that gave owners a safe way to surrender their firearms. The church collected dozens of weapons in three hours. Then, in partnership with Raw Tools, an area nonprofit, it had blacksmiths immediately turn parts of those guns into gardening tools.
”This is a whole community, whole cosmos kind of thing,” said the Rev. Nicole Lamarche, church pastor. “In other words, it is a dream so big that we can only do it with the wind of the Spirit and the work of the whole community.”
“Guns to Gardens,” a concrete response to the mass shooting that took 10 lives, has been supported by the Boulder Police Department, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, Colorado Faith Communities United to End Gun Violence, other churches and social justice organizations. They all came together to support the secure surrender of weapons – and a safe way to gather in community afterward.
Listening reveals energy
Community UCC was moved to hold this specific event after bringing church members and their neighbors together in listening circles set up to help people cope after the shooting at King Soopers. The aim was to find a way to take the pain of the mass murder down the street and transform it.
“One of the blessings of the pandemic, or pandemic silver linings, as many people are saying, is the way that technology has allowed us to easily, efficiently and accessibly convene our congregation and community across a wide geography,” Lamarche said. “Listening circles were numerous opportunities for the voices of our people to be heard … It was in these ‘squares’ that we heard where this massacre could be our movement for this moment.
“We had already been involved in gun violence legislation so we heard a need to express gratitude for that and to do more. In addition to an effort on an assault weapons ban, we heard energy for something we could do now, which was a gun buy-back or a safe surrender, as it is called in some locations.”
The idea for gun buy-backs came up in every one of four sessions of listening circles.
‘Swords into plowshares’
Another movement moment came when Lamarche connected with Mike Martin and Raw Tools after a Good Friday demonstration at the Boulder Mennonite Church on April 2. Raw Tools professes “forging peace.”
“That gave us another spark for our prayers to find a place for movement,” she said.
Lamarche first learned about Raw Tools — and its process to “turn swords into plowshares” — shortly after she started as pastor of Community UCC in 2019. In fact, she introduced the organization to her church in a sermon in December 2019, not knowing what was to come. Here’s part of that sermon:
“Peace is taking the pain of the moment and daring to transform it… “It was 2012 -- and three months after the Sandy Hook Massacre where 20 children and six educators where gunned down with an AR-15 assault style rifle -- when Michael Martin of Colorado Springs was moved to learn blacksmithing. “In response to this tragedy followed by no legislative action, Michael founded a nonprofit called Raw Tools, taking donated handguns, assault weapons and semiautomatic rifles and turning them into garden tools -- or, in the biblical words, the organization turn swords into plowshares. “They literally take metal from guns, often given over after a violent incident, and they transform them into something that gives life instead of taking it. For survivors of gun violence, this work is not just about saving lives, it has become something like a public ritual for processing grief -- changing the pain into a tool that will grow food and sow peace.”
Guns into gift cards
On June 13, here’s how the process worked:
- From 1 to 4 p.m., trained volunteers collected and disabled weapons. Gun owners drove onto the church campus and the firearms were removed from their vehicles.
- The weapons were disabled on site, and immediately taken to six chop-saw stations that Raw Tools positioned around the property. Pieces went into a foundry to create garden tools.
- Gun donors were given thank-you gift cards in varying amounts, based on the type of firearm surrendered. Individuals collected a $100 card for pistols and long guns, $200 for semi-automatic handguns and rifles, and $300 for assault weapons.
All of this took place under the watchful eye of 50 faith community volunteers trained in activism, who ringed the property. The church was awarded a $3,000 Solidarity Grant from UCC Global H.O.P.E to fund of on-site security, training and other fixed expenses so all money raised for the project could be used to buy thank-you gifts.
‘Generosity has flowed’
With initial donations, Community UCC purchased $20,000 in gift cards, 150 of which can be used at the King Soopers grocery store. An anonymous donor gave $10,000 within minutes after the event was announced. The other $10,000 was from a church member’s gift earmarked for social justice work.
Kathy Stutzman, the event coordinator and chair of the church’s Social Action Commission, said donations to buy gift cards continued to come in as the event approached.
“Generosity has flowed and money has not been the obstacle, in part because the vision is clear: offer a safe and secure location for unwanted weapons to be disposed of and transformed by those with spiritual intentions,” Lamarche said. “In Colorado, most deaths by suicide happen by gun. We now understand that ending gun violence includes a whole spectrum of responses.”
Diverse gun owners
“While we are not expecting these activities to end mass shootings, they do offer a glimmer of hope to the community to see action, to be able to witness and participate in the transformational process of turning guns into gardening tools from the surrendered weapons,” Stutzman said.
She noted that gun buy-back events typically are hosted and sponsored by local police departments. The church acting as host with a number of community partners offered a faithful response, an anonymous and secure surrender of firearms.
Stutzman also shared stories about people looking for help in getting rid of unwanted guns. An 84-year-old woman, she said, called a neighboring church asking for a way to get six guns out of her possession. Another woman who inherited a rifle said she didn’t know what to do with it. Community UCC, with help from other members of the community, gave them a way to get those guns out of their homes.
“An elderly woman hooked up to oxygen brought us a number of long guns … we opened the truck and there they were,” Lamarche said, noting that a number of widows brought weapons they were left with and didn’t want. “We also got quite a few semi-automatic handguns. We rang a bell every time we disassembled one of those.”
Prayer, self-care, education
At 4 p.m. Sunday, the church shut down the collection and prepared for prayer, self-care and education. A group gathered down the street at 4:30, with clergy in stoles and collars, on the sidewalk outside King Soopers. They processed back to the Community UCC for a news conference and blacksmithing demonstration at 5:00, where the public could see gun parts turned into garden tools.
The church also made space for self-care during the 5:00 hour, offering music, poetry, Acu-Detox and art supplies. “We had choirs and religious leaders on site, along with prayer stations, art spots and a chance to walk the labyrinth,” Lamarche said. “All of this is about transforming our trauma.”.
“It felt important to acknowledge that trauma around gun violence is a reality,” said the Rev. Jackie Hibbard, associate pastor. “We wanted to offer opportunities for people to transform their trauma in a variety of ways — literally beating up metal from guns, walking, praying, singing, poetry, art and acupuncture. What we know about trauma is that it lives in our body, and moving our body or ‘doing’ something can help it move through and help with healing.”
‘Don’t underestimate church’s role’
Guns to Gardens had a number of goals – all healing- , safety- , education- and advocacy-oriented. The church took on this project during June — Gun Violence Awareness Month — to let people know that gun violence is more than mass shootings. Recent research by Colorado Faith Communities United Against Gun Violence noted 164 homicides and 636 suicides in Colorado by firearms in 2019.
Lamarche was heartened by “wonderful expressions of ‘we are with you'” she noted from people throughout the event. “It was such a Spirit-soaked day,” she said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Guns to Gardens also served as the kickoff to a series of events in the Colorado faith community that culminates with a national Gun Violence Roundtable Conference June 25-27, hosted by the Boulder Mennonite Church. It will also be used as a model for similar events that other UCC churches plan to host in nearby Longmont in June and in Denver in December.
“Don’t underestimate our role as conveners in the community,” Lamarche said. “Our places and spaces as people of faith and kindness are game changers. People are looking to make meaning out of tragedy and to transform all of this trauma. In a time of great uncertainty, this is something we can offer: rituals, space for gathering, leaders to convene people across differences, love, compassion, people engaged with making the world more just and loving. We are made for such a time as this.
“We have already shifted the culture of what the church can do.”
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