Guns to Gardens Memphis

Rev. Patrick Harley, Pastor, Evergreen Presbyterian Church, Memphis, TN

I’m fascinated by artists who can transform items like clay, wood, or metal into something beautiful. I don’t have that skill. And when the raw materials that an artist is using come from something that was created to harm? Well, then my fascination turns into pure inspiration.

Thanks to Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF), I started learning about efforts by faith communities all over the country who were holding one-day events to accept unwanted guns and immediately chopping-up and dismantling the guns on-site. The pieces left were given to blacksmiths to be turned into garden tools, in a very timely interpretation of the passage from Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

Except, in this case, it’s “guns into garden tools.”

Gun violence is a serious issue in Memphis. Whether you live out in the country, downtown, in a historic neighborhood, or in the ‘burbs, gun violence has had a very real and terrifying effect on daily life. In fact, several church members often bring up questions such as, “What can we do about these guns?” And “How can we make this city more peaceful?”

As we’d discuss our deep concerns around local gun violence, and all of the various ways we were already organizing, voting, and protesting, I remembered what I had heard about through PPF. I reached out to folks who had experience with gun violence reduction through PPF, and several church members joined me on an introductory zoom chat to learn more about this fascinating “Guns to Gardens” program.

A year and a half later, after connecting with over twenty different local organizations, raising over $10,000, coordinating over 50 volunteers, and more emails than I care to think about, we finally had a date and location set in stone. On Saturday, February 24 at Presbyterian Place (the old home that houses our Presbytery office near the University of Memphis), we were setting up signs and saws, our checklists in hand, ready to open the parking lot in three hours to anyone willing to donate their firearms. Thanks to lots of local media coverage, the word was out. We had fingers crossed that at least a few people would show up.

We were set to close the event at 4pm, and at 3:58pm, we cut up the last gun. That gun was number 79. By the end of the day, we had dismantled 48 shotguns/rifles, 30 handguns, and 1 assault-style weapon. We had 48 vehicles come through the line. We had given out over $6,300 in grocery store gift cards to donors as thank you’s. We were all in shock, brought to tears, and thrilled that there was such a strong turnout.

Thanks to our partnership with the Memphis Metal Museum, we had a host of local metal workers and welding students ready to get their hands on the materials.

“One rifle barrel can easily make two gardening spades, or three bracelets, or a small statue,” one of the blacksmiths said.

The artists have generously offered to donate their time and labor, and the money made from the sales of these garden tools and art will go toward our next Guns to Gardens event.

Sure, doing this once a year won’t end gun violence in Memphis. But it’s something we can do to witness to the work of peace and resurrection. It’s quite fitting really, that we’re celebrating this incredible success for our first event during the Easter season. Isn’t this what our faith is about? Gathering together in bold and creative ways to allow the Spirit of the Living God to transform things that bring about death and destruction into beautiful things that bring new life?