The Rev. Nancy Nord Bence presided over six funerals resulting from gun violence, and has counseled the children and families of Minnesotans killed or injured by weapons.
At one point, the exasperated Lutheran minister wrote on Facebook that she would be willing to leave her parish work “if someone would pay me to work in gun violence prevention,” she said. That opportunity came this year, when she left a 20-year ministerial career to take the helm of Protect Minnesota, a nonprofit working to end gun violence through advocacy, education and organizing.
“They are some of the saddest experiences I had as a parish pastor,” said Nord Bence.
“When you’re dealing with a family who lost a loved one to cancer or some medical condition, we understand that’s part of our human condition. When you’re dealing with a family dealing with a gunshot death ... that’s a human life — and its potential — being violently destroyed.”
While it may seem unusual to have a Lutheran minister overseeing a gun reform group, the arrangement is endorsed by the St. Paul synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which in May approved a resolution to support gun violence prevention. The synod determined Nord Bence’s work at the St. Paul nonprofit was a “specialized call to ministry” and she retains full ministerial privileges.
“As a synod, we embolden the public to witness to justice and service,” said Noreen Stevens, the synod’s assistant to the bishop for vocational formation. “We see gun violence prevention as an opportunity to do that.”
Nord Bence moved into her new role at Protect Minnesota after its longtime executive director, Heather Martens, stepped down in February. She had created several different “caucuses” in the organization, including an “Interfaith Alliance for Gun Safety.”
It’s a natural role for many religious groups and individuals, said Nord Bence, former pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Coon Rapids. And religious groups are reaching out. Protect Minnesota, for example, was invited to staff a booth at the Episcopal Church of Minnesota’s annual convention in Faribault this month, she said, and to collaborate with Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota on an upcoming project.
“The heart of every religion and belief that I know of is the sense that every single being is created by God and valued by God,” said Nord Bence.
“With 32,000 of God’s children [a year] dying of gunfire in America, it makes sense that people of faith would say, ‘This is a needless waste of the people that God has created.’ ”
But the pastor also acknowledges there are challenges to advocating for such issues as universal background checks for gun purchases. In Minnesota, for example, half of all households have a gun.
“We have a long way to go to convince Minnesotans that we’re not out to get their guns,” she said.
Some Minnesotans believe gun violence is just a gang problem in urban areas, she said. But more than 82 percent of gun deaths in Minnesota are the result of suicide, she said.
Protect Minnesota will be among 250 organizations across the country joining a “Concert Across America to End Gun Violence” on Sept. 25 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at International Market Square in Minneapolis. Performers range from J.D. Steele to the MacPhail Community Youth Choir.