Jack Walker Published

Pairing Art With Prayer, Brooke County Residents Call For End To Gun Violence

A woman holding a guitar sits on concrete steps. Behind her sit a man and a woman wearing orange shirts, smiling at the camera. In the background, orange pinwheels are placed on the exterior of a red brick building with a sign that says "Bethany Memorial Church Entrance." Further behind the sign is a row of small stained glass windows.
At Brooke County's Bethany Memorial Church, Brenda Hart, Paul James and Karen McFadden (from left) participate in a service advocating for an end to gun violence.
Erin James-Brown/Bethany Memorial Church

Each year, tens of thousands of Americans die from firearm injuries. In 2022, that figure included more than 300 West Virginians.

Nationally, the American public is split on a solution. But residents of one town in Brooke County are advocating for an end to gun violence through political organizing, public art and prayer.

For the past three years, Bethany Memorial Church has used its entryway and red-brick facade to display art installations.

The artwork always incorporates the color orange — a symbol taken on by activists protesting gun violence across the country.

“The reason it’s orange is because that’s the color that people wear in the woods when there are hunters around,” said Debra Hull, the church’s outreach chair and the project’s main organizer. “It basically says, ‘Don’t shoot me.’”

Bethany Memorial Church began the project in 2022, after the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

That year, community members placed 21 chairs outside of the church, with orange signs displaying the names of victims of the shooting. Nineteen of those chairs were child sized for the young students who were killed.

This month’s installation looked a little different. Instead of chairs, pinwheels were placed along the outside walls of the church.

“This year, what we did was to have spinners, pinwheels, decorating the church to indicate that we were standing with the people who had experienced gun violence,” Hull said.

While the use of firearms for acts of violence has hit much of the United States, Hull said gun ownership poses different concerns for different communities around the country.

Gun ownership is more prevalent in rural areas like West Virginia. This can mean firearm injuries don’t just come from conflict, but also from unsafe practices from some owners.

“We would want to bring awareness to the importance of not leaving loaded guns around, or guns where children could have access to them,” Hull said.

Plus, guns are frequently used in instances of suicide, at especially high rates among veterans and military service members. Hull said these different types of gun-related injury show that gun violence is far reaching, and in need of reexamination.

Orange pinwheels line the front of a brick church, covering three archways. Behind the archways are a sign and stained glass windows.
Every June, Bethany Memorial Church displays public art — part of a call from local community members to end gun violence across the United States.

Photo Credit: Erin James-Brown/Bethany Memorial Church
Orange pinwheels line the front of a brick church, covering three archways. Behind the archways are a sign and stained glass windows.
The art always incorporates the color orange, a symbol taken on by activists protesting gun violence. This year’s display featured pinwheels on the outside wall of the church.

Photo Credit: Erin James-Brown/Bethany Memorial Church

But that can be a tricky conversation to start in a state like West Virginia, which skews more conservative on gun control issues than many states. Hull said she and fellow organizers have to begin where residents “have agreement.”

“Any time you’re working on something to help children, it’s easier for people to come together… because nobody wants to see a child harmed, an innocent person harmed by gun violence,” she said. “We’re all interested in working toward that end of keeping kids safe.”

For Bethany Memorial Church, coming together as a community also means creating a space for spiritual gathering. Each year, Pastor Erin James-Brown also helps organize a religious service to convey the urgency of ending gun violence.

“We do readings, poetry, readings of poetry about gun violence. It can feel kind of graphic and hard to take all that in, reading about the experience people have when they experience a shooting,” she said. “But we try to be present for those readings so that we feel the impact as well, and don’t just turn away a blind eye. We want to bear the witness as best we can.”

Gun violence isn’t an issue that just affects Christians, so James-Brown said she also works with other religious leaders to give the service multi-faith appeal.

Brooke Deal is a professor of religious studies at Bethany College, which neighbors Bethany Memorial Church. Her work focuses on Judaism and ancient Israel.

Deal incorporated readings from Jewish scriptures and the Quran to incorporate the religious views of Jewish and Muslim community members, too.

“We kind of really pride ourselves on the interfaith relationship that we have,” she said.

Deal and the project’s other organizers say art and religious gatherings carry deep social meaning. But they also wanted the political underpinnings of their effort to be clear.

This has meant raising money for different nonprofits seeking to end gun violence, in addition to advocating for gun reform.

“I think what’s really important about our activism is that we offer ways to get involved,” she said. “We sort of demonstrate how to walk the walk in terms of how to take action, who your representatives are, how to reach out to them.”

Twenty-one chairs with orange signs sit before a church entryway on a sidewalk.
In 2022, Bethany Memorial Church displayed a public art installation honoring the 21 victims of a shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which included 19 young children.

Photo Credit: Debra Hull/Bethany Memorial Church

Deal pointed to House Resolution 1478, the Federal Firearm Licensee Act, as a piece of legislation the event’s organizers are pushing for.

“It’s a gun safety bill that will help keep guns off the streets, providing law enforcement with tools necessary to crack down on gun trafficking and rogue gun sales,” she said.

This year’s project also incorporated a postcard writing effort, where attendees could write messages in favor of the resolution to their legislators.

For the project’s organizers, tackling the issue of gun violence can seem like a tall order. But by organizing Bethany’s community — from the church congregation to the student body at Bethany College — they hope to show the diversity of perspectives in West Virginia.

And, by doing this work on the local level, Deal said she and her fellow organizers hope to create change one step at a time.

“We’re a very small community, obviously, in a very red state that’s very emphatic about guns and gun ownership,” Deal said. “We just want to create a safe space here at the college, in coordination with the church, for our students to know that we take this issue very seriously and that we are, as activists, doing work to make sure our campus remains a safe place.”