The Rev. Jeremy Lucas had just returned to Oregon from a family vacation back home to Alabama — the Deep South state where he was first introduced to guns and where, as a kid, he learned to shoot a rifle — when he pulled out his phone and started scrolling.
It had been just days since the deadly mass shooting in Dallas that left five police officers dead and seven wounded. They were targeted by a black man with three guns, including an assault rifle, while working a Black Lives Matter protest. That same week, two black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, were shot and killed by police, the incidents captured on video and circulated worldwide. Only one month earlier, 49 people were killed in the country’s deadliest mass shooting, at an Orlando gay nightclub.
Lucas’s Twitter news feed reflected the turmoil America felt in the aftermath of that bloody month, the renewed discussion about gun control and the vitriol that topic inspires.
Then his fingers found a bizarre headline: “An Oregon Girls Softball Team Is Raffling Off an AR-15 Rifle.”
The attached photo illustration, created as a spoof by the paper, showed a softball player in uniform, but instead of a bat she swung a gun, and not at a ball, but a wad of floating $100 bills.
The 41-year-old Episcopal pastor couldn’t help but click.
Girls softball team raffles off an AR-15. "This is still America, where I believe we are free to pursue our own joy."https://t.co/TUnfk3CHLh
— Willamette Week (@wweek) July 11, 2016
The article, from Willamette Week, an alternative weekly newspaper, explained the plight of the Big League Girls’ All Star Softball Team:
“An area softball team is raffling off an AR-15 rifle to raise money to compete in a California tournament later this month.
For $20 a ticket, 15 girls from Centennial, Gresham, and Milwaukie high schools are hoping that the rifle raffle earns them the $6,000 they need to represent Oregon at the West Regional Tournament in Lancaster, Calif., July 23-27.
The players are between the ages of 14 and 18.”
Despite the nation’s heightened anxiety over guns, especially around children, a representative of the team called the raffle’s timing a “nonissue,” Willamette Week reported.
“This is still America, where I believe we are free to pursue our own joy,” Georgia Herr, a district manager for the team, wrote in an email to the newspaper. “For those who have the money and resources to shoot rifles, I believe they have as much of a right to do so as those who spend their time chasing invisible Pokémon.”
The article gave the pastor pause.
“I think it sends very mixed messages,” Lucas told The Washington Post. “On the one hand to have kids go through active shooter drills (at school), and at the same time raffle off rifles that are used in so many of these mass shootings.”
As a Christian, as a dad and as a church leader, he said he felt compelled to act.
“I decided one day I was going to try to stop the raffle,” Lucas said.
The pastor reached out to the softball coach and team mom, offering to fully fund the California trip if they would shut down the raffle altogether. Their correspondence was respectful, Lucas said, but he was told that because the team had already begun selling raffle tickets, Oregon law required them to follow through with the contest.
So he formulated a new plan: Buy as many tickets as possible.
If he won, he’d be able to both help the softball team achieve their goal and ensure the AR-15 prize fell into his hands. Then he would destroy it.
Christ Church Episcopal Parish, where Lucas has worked for 2½ years, has a discretionary fund built upon donations and available for clergy members when the community or a member of the congregation is in need. It has been used to help with a rent payment, to prevent utilities from being shut off, to assist visiting priests from around the world. Although the AR-15 raffle cause wasn’t quite as traditional, Lucas said he felt it fit the criteria.
So he dipped in, using $3,000 to buy 150 tickets. The girls, he said, had already sold 112 at the time. There were 499 total.
The following Sunday, he told the congregation what he had done, and aside from a few naysayers, they backed his decision with overwhelming support. Donations flooded into the discretionary fund to replenish what he had used, and soon Lucas was returning to the raffle organizers to see whether he could purchase more tickets. But they were already gone.
His chance of winning was 30 percent. The pastor waited.
Lucas was on his way to officiate a wedding in Canada early last week when he got the congratulatory call: He was the new owner of an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. All he had to do was pass a background check and pick it up.
The pastor’s feelings were mixed, but he told himself this: “One less gun in the world is one less gun that can hurt people.”
On Wednesday, Lucas and his wife drove to a local gun shop, where they met a man from the softball team to whom the raffle rifle was registered. The store helped them transfer the AR-15 into the pastor’s name. Lucas filled out a form that asked about his mental health and criminal record. He passed the background check. They were in and out within 30 minutes.
“I was pretty surprised at how easy it was to get this transfer made,” he said. “How quick it was to walk in and out of a gun shop with an AR-15.”
They drove it to the home of a parishioner, a “responsible gun owner,” Lucas said, who offered to keep the rifle locked up in a gun safe until the pastor is ready to destroy it.
“This is a very small, symbolic step,” Lucas said, “but sometimes you have to do what you can do, with what you have, where you are.”
Next week, the pastor said, he’ll meet with an artist that is part of a group called “Guns in the Hands of Artists,” which he hopes will find a creative way to make something inspiring out of the weapon, something that will symbolize the transformation he believes is possible if Americans step back from the heated gun debate and try to listen to each other.
When local media reported that he had won the rifle, Lucas’s social media, email and phone inboxes were filled with messages from opinionated people. Many were supportive; others were not. In a comment on one of the stories, someone told the pastor to kill himself.
But he has also received several touching messages, such as the thankful voice mail on his church phone from a crying woman whose brother died from gun violence. Or the email he received Wednesday evening, after he’d picked up his prize, from a woman who lives in the same town as one of the teachers killed in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Lucas wasn’t the only one who caught heat for the rifle raffle. The team’s coach, Ron Brown, received so much hate mail from gun control advocates — people on the opposite political spectrum of the pastor’s critics — that he resigned from his post as the Centennial Little League Board of Directors president. The position was not affiliated with Oregon’s Big League Girls’ All Star Softball Team, but after news of the rifle raffle spread, the Centennial Little League Board of Directors released a statement on their Facebook page denouncing the fundraising contest.
In the same statement, the board offered its support to the team and wished the girls and Coach Brown luck on their trip to California.
“Given the events of the past month and the tragic deaths of children in schools and other public spaces over recent years, the Centennial Little League Board of Directors does not condone the raffling of this rifle,” the statement read.
The board said in the statement on Facebook that it was saddened by the resignation of Brown, who has coached the girls team for 10 years.
“We asked him to reconsider his position and he feels as if this is the best course of action right now,” the statement read. “We sincerely hope that Ron reconsiders his decision and will once again join the Board at a later date.”
Lucas said he talked with Brown shortly after he resigned, and the coach told the pastor he made the decision because he was getting so many hateful messages.
“And there we were, having an extremely kind conversation, consoling each other,” Lucas said.
The pastor said that moment showed him just how extreme and divisive the gun conversation has become in America.
“If nothing else, I know that there is one AR-15 that will never be used to hurt anyone in law enforcement, a child in a classroom, people going to a holiday party, by a veteran experiencing PTSD to take their own life,” Lucas said. “This particular gun will never be used for that, and that’s worth a lot more than $3,000 to me.”