Joel Shenk, pastor of Toledo Mennonite Church, describes how he learned blacksmithing as part of his personal peace witness and how his conference and congregation have joined him in this work.
This blog post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Learn, Pray, Join: End Gun Violence initiative.
Joel Shenk is pastor of Toledo (Ohio) Mennonite Church, an Ohio Mennonite Conference congregation, where he has served since 2010. He graduated from Hesston College, Eastern Mennonite University and Fuller Theological Seminary He is an avid fly fisher, an aspiring gardener and an amateur blacksmith. He, his wife and two daughters live in Toledo.
Camille Dager, chief communication officer for MC USA, talked to Joel Shenk about his peace witness in response to growing gun violence in the U.S.
How has gun violence impacted you?
Pastor Joel: It hasn’t impacted me directly. What has impacted me is seeing the gun violence in our society, militarized law enforcement, gang violence, police shootings, suicides and mass shootings at schools. Back in 2016, some of us at Toledo Mennonite Church started asking if there is anything that we, as a church, could do. That’s when we got started with RAWtools.
[RAWtools is an MC USA-affiliated ministry, focused on moving communities away from violence by making garden tools from guns, as well as helping teach new ways to solve problems through relationships, dialogue and alternative means of justice.]
I understand you are a blacksmith. Tell me about this.
Pastor Joel: Several of us in Toledo got together and invited Mike Martin [of RAWtools] and his father, Fred, to come and do a demonstration. At that event, we made some good connections that led to a conversation with a local blacksmith, Dane Turpening of Toledo Twisted Iron. He and I worked together for a little bit, and I learned the basics. It’s not hard to learn, but it’s hard to get good at!
The tools are basic, but not everyone has an anvil and a forge. Otherwise, you’re working with hammers and tongs. My parents owned a hardware store when I was growing up, so I grew up around various tools.
I also took a blacksmithing class and a welding class through the Toledo Museum of Art during my last sabbatical, three years ago, and I went out for a week to visit Mike and Fred [Martin] and worked in their shop.
[Toledo Mennonite Church now has a portable anvil and forge. Toledo Mennonite Church is part of the RAWtools Disarming Network, a network of locations across the U.S. that can help people disable their guns legally and safely.]
How does your Anabaptist faith inform your response to gun violence?
Pastor Joel: I was raised in the Mennonite tradition, which taught me the ways of nonviolence and peacebuilding. In 1 Peter 3:11, Peter quotes from Psalm 34 and says, “seek peace and pursue it.” Jesus taught us to love our enemy and said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Isaiah and Micah talked about turning swords into plowshares. It’s that biblical witness from the Old Testament to the New Testament and Jesus. That’s the narrative that I want to live into, that I want to try to embody and pursue.
How has the congregation at Toledo Mennonite Church supported this work?
Pastor Joel: They’ve supported it in principle and concept, financially, by providing space and by volunteering … I would say that it helped us, as a congregation, go from a mere abstract commitment to peace and nonviolence to being able to do something tangible.
How have others responded to this work?
Pastor Joel: At one event, a local judge who works in the juvenile justice system brought a couple of young men who had gun charges against them … At the [guns-to-garden-tools] event, they had to grapple with their choices, after seeing this powerful, symbolic demonstration. She told me later that they said it made them think about it.
At another event, in a different town, our event was billed as a conversation about gun rights. During the panel discussion, part of the group was getting upset, crossing their arms and arguing about specific points. Afterward, they didn’t necessarily know what to think of the fact that I was turning a gun into a garden tool, but these men — some of whom were machinists and farmers — liked the skill, the mechanics, the blacksmithing part of it. I felt like this was a time when it really was a disarming event — disarming not only guns, but hearts and minds.
What insights might you have for other congregations/ministries interested in engaging in this issue?
Pastor Joel: I would say, keep in mind the “mustard seed” concept [a reference to Matthew 17:20-21] — it doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be grand. It doesn’t even need to have an impact. It’s about faith. It’s about witness. It may or may not move the needle, in terms of the public policy or cultural dynamics, but so be it. We’re not necessarily called to be effective; we’re called to be faithful. There’s a lot of faithful ways to get involved or to be a witness. It could be planting a garden that’s a tribute to those who were lost to gun violence this year. The less digital and the more actual that you can make it, the better. Instead of a social media post, try to do something tangible and active with your hands, feet and body in a physical space in the community. I think that’s a good thing. That’s the kind of thing I’m interested in.
Pastor Joel: The Ohio Mennonite Conference Ministry Development Team recently gave Toledo Mennonite Church a grant, which will go toward creating a fully functional permanent blacksmithing workshop. This will, hopefully, kickstart some more activity for us.
I’d love for us to have a Sunday school class during which people go out after church and use the forge. I’d love to have social events in which people come and work on an art piece, but we need the physical space to do it.
[At the time of this interview, Pastor Joel was preparing to provide a demonstration at a RAWtools event on Sept. 24 being hosted by three other Ohio Mennonite Conference congregations: Zion Mennonite Church, Lockport Mennonite Church and Central Mennonite Church.]
As followers of Jesus in the Anabaptist faith tradition, we are called to seek peace and witness against all forms of violence.
Approximately 118 people per day die by gun violence in the U.S. Gun violence is a complex issue that intersects with poverty, racism, discrimination, criminal justice, education and the environment.
This “Learn, Pray, Join: End Gun Violence” initiative calls us to understand this crisis through the lens of our faith and seek ways to bring God’s hope and healing to our hurting communities, through education, disarming practices, advocacy and standing as a visible witness for peace.
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