[Episcopal News Service] The Rt. Rev. Jim Curry answered his phone Nov. 15 while driving his Toyota Highlander south down Interstate 95 toward Washington, D.C., with two colleagues on board. The vehicle was towing a trailer loaded with their essential cargo: a traditional blacksmithing forge.
Curry, a founding member of Bishops United Against Gun Violence, and his Connecticut-based crew were on their way to appear the next day on Capitol Hill to demonstrate how they melt down guns and turn them into gardening tools. The nonprofit he co-founded in 2017, Swords to Plowshares Northeast, is centered on the process.
The organization takes its name from a passage from Isaiah 2:4 – “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” Swords to Plowshares promotes gun safety with a visual, tangible ministry that Curry says is both practical and symbolic.
“When we started evangelizing and talking to police departments and communities around the country and we could show them the actual transformation, these weapons of death into instruments of life, it’s just been an amazing process,” Curry told Episcopal News Service. “People really get it.”
Curry retired in 2014 as bishop suffragan in the Diocese of Connecticut. He now serves as chief blacksmith for Swords to Plowshares, demonstrating his skills with a hammer and anvil at gun buyback events across the Northeast. He’s helped the nonprofit destroy about 800 guns in four years. More were melted down Nov. 16 when Curry and the blacksmithing crew fired up the forge during the noon hour outside the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, about a block and a half from the U.S. Capitol.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both Democrats from Connecticut, attended the demonstration and participated in part of the process of melting and reshaping the former weapons. Washington Bishop Marianne Budde also joined them.
The organization’s ministry is deeply rooted in Connecticut, where lawmakers and Episcopal leaders were moved to action on gun reforms by the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, which left 20 students and six educators dead. Curry recalls responding to the scene of the shooting that day with Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas and Bishop Suffragan Laura Ahrens.
“Quite frankly, you don’t live through that without your lives changing,” Curry said.
In the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, the Connecticut bishops joined with bishops in other dioceses that were grieving mass shootings and formed Bishops United Against Gun Violence. The network, with more than 100 member bishops, now is a leading churchwide voice of advocacy for gun safety legislation and common sense precautions, like gun locks and safes. The bishops also memorialize the victims of gun violence and offer prayers and pastoral care to survivors.
In Washington, The Episcopal Church’s advocacy is led by the Office of Government Relations, which has pushed this year for passage of legislation that would strengthen and expand background checks for gun purchases. The House passed two such bills this year, but they have since stalled in the Senate. “A majority of Americans recognize the urgent need for gun reform,” the Office of Government Relations said in an action alert to its Episcopal Public Policy Network.
The agency’s advocacy follows Episcopal policy positions established by General Convention in resolutions dating to 1976 that call for legislation to address the problem of gun violence.
Raising awareness of those positions is one goal of Swords to Plowshares, and the demonstration on Nov. 16 in Washington was arranged to draw the attention of lawmakers, news outlets and passersby on Capitol Hill.
“The biblical promise of swords being turned into plowshares was reenacted today. Our hope is that we can all help to build a more peaceful world,” Lindsey Warburton, a policy analyst with the Office of Government Relations, said in an emailed statement to ENS. “We are glad to support Swords to Plowshares, the work of Bishops United against Gun Violence, and advocacy to the U.S. government to ensure our communities do not suffer any more from gun violence.”
The mobile blacksmithing forge that Curry and his team use is fired by propane, and their blacksmithing tools include hammers, tongs, chisels and anvils. They take the barrels of rifles, pistols and shotguns and heat them in the forge and then reshape the malleable metal into hand tools. Trowels, shaped from shotgun barrels, are relatively easy, Curry told ENS. It takes 10 to 15 minutes to get the rough shape. Revolvers and rifles typically are made from heavier metals, which take more time to mold, he said. The blacksmiths then grind the metal to complete the tool.
The idea for Swords to Plowshares was inspired by a Mennonite blacksmithing ministry in Colorado called RAWtools. Its motto: “Disarm hearts. Forge peace. Cultivate justice.” After hearing about RAWtools’ efforts to collect surrendered weapons and melt them down, Curry went to apprentice with them.
Taking what he learned, Curry and the team now partner with police agencies and other local groups to organize gun buybacks, at which guns can be surrendered with no questions asked, in exchange for cash or other compensation. After the weapons are transformed into gardening tools, Swords to Plowshares donates them to community gardens.
The method and the message are closely intertwined, Curry said, and this transformation that ends the guns’ existence can be emotionally powerful for observers. At a recent session in Massachusetts, “as the gardeners saw us making tools and received tools from us, they were just in tears,” Curry said. “The larger message is, as a society we don’t have to be bound by violence.”
Curry acknowledged that the organization can only melt down guns that are surrendered, leaving plenty of guns out of the organization’s reach in a country where 40% of adults live in a household with a gun.
He emphasized that 60% of the 40,000 gun deaths each year in the United States are not homicides but suicides. “Those suicides are because unsecured guns are available to people at moments of crisis. Buybacks get those guns out of homes,” Curry said.
He also lamented the hundreds of people wounded or killed in the U.S. annually in accidental shootings by children; guns also are prime targets for thefts from homes, especially in suburban communities. In response, Swords to Plowshares works with its community partners to encourage gun owners to obtain locks and safes to secure their firearms.
“If people can rethink their need to have unsecured guns in their house, then we’re really changing the understanding of the place of guns in our lives,” he said.
Destroying guns is the most direct way Swords to Plowshares fulfills its mission. The garden tools that were created Nov. 16 on Capitol Hill mostly came from metal obtained in gun buybacks held in the Connecticut communities of New Haven, Guilford and Hamden, Curry said, and they eventually will be put in the hands of gardeners.
That process conveys “a real sense of transformation,” he said. “That’s what gives hope.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.