WASHINGTON (CNS) – Several US Catholic bishops expressed sorrow and called out racism and gun violence after a mass shooting on May 14 in Buffalo, New York, left at least three injured and 10 dead, all of whom were Black.
Authorities said the shooter, who was white, was motivated by hatred for Black people.
“Faith compels us to say no to the rotten forces of racism, no to terror, and no to the mortal silencing of Black and brown voices,” Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, said on May 15 in one of the most powerful statements condemning the violence that took place when a gunman opened fire on a Saturday afternoon at the upper New York state supermarket.
Bishop Mark Brennan of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, also spoke up against what has been categorised, not just as violence but one coloured with chilling racism.
“The tragedy in Buffalo is hardly the first such violence against African Americans,” he wrote shortly after the attack. “From the crossing of the ocean in slave ships, in which many Africans died, to their violent treatment by slave masters to the thousands of lynching of Blacks in the South to more recent killings of unarmed African Americans by police and civilians, even in their churches, this racism has claimed an inordinate number of Black lives simply because they were Black. When and how will it stop?”
In Buffalo, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said in a May 14 statement that 18-year-old suspect Payton Gendron, of Conklin, New York, “who was allegedly wearing tactical gear and armed with an assault weapon” when he entered the supermarket at around 2:30pm has been charged with first-degree murder and remained in custody without bail. Gendron entered a plea of “not guilty”.
Some of those fatally wounded include a retired Buffalo police officer working security at the store, an 85-year-old grandmother of eight who cared for her husband and a 72-year-old civil rights advocate.
“My office is working closely with the US Attorney’s Office and our partners in law enforcement into potential terrorism and hate crimes,” Flynn said. “This is an active investigation and additional charges may be filed.”
Gendron is scheduled for a hearing on May 19.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden travelled to Buffalo on May 17 to mourn the victims and offer condolences to family members and the community. In a speech during his visit, the president vowed that “white supremacy will not have the last word”.
Religious congregations and other organisations likewise condemned the shooting, including the General Council of the Adrian Dominican Sisters in Michigan, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and the Knights of Peter Claver, one of the nation’s largest and oldest Black Catholic lay-led organizations.
“Racism is not pro-life. Racism is not Christian. Racism is not of God. Racism and hatred are tools used by the devil in an attempt to separate the people of God from his love,” said the Knights. “God did not create us to be superior or inferior; nor master or slave to one another. He created us in his image and likeness to love and be loved by one another.”
News reports said authorities have pointed to a 180-page online document the shooting suspect is alleged to have left behind, filled with racist views and details of his plan of attack. There also are reports that he strapped equipment to the top of a tactical helmet he was wearing so he could livestream the shooting.
“The scourge of senseless gun violence that has taken the lives of so many across our nation and changed the lives of countless innocent men, women and children must come to an end,” Bishop Michael Fisher of Buffalo said in a statement posted on Twitter shortly after the attack.
The Erie district attorney’s office said the “defendant drove” more than three hours to a Tops supermarket located in a predominantly Black section of Buffalo, “with the intent to commit a crime”.
It’s a scenario eerily similar to a 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, where the suspected gunman in that incident drove close to 10 hours, also left behind a racist manifesto railing against a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and opened fire on a mostly Latino clientele at a Walmart in 2019. He also is said to have referenced the same conspiracy theory about replacement of white people tied to the suspect in the Buffalo shooting.
In El Paso, priests from the diocese were allowed in shortly after the shooting to comfort and administer last rites to the dying. Bishop Seitz for months visited the wounded and wrote a pastoral letter against hatred and included the Church’s role in racism at the border.
“We know this pain all too well! Our prayers are with the people that lost loved ones today, the faithful of the Diocese of Buffalo and the entire city of Buffalo,” the Diocese of El Paso wrote in a post following the Buffalo attack.
In a separate message, Bishop Seitz said that “racism and white supremacy continue to strike our society deeply and reverberate widely, victimising communities of colour and diminishing us all”.
“I want those in Buffalo to feel the solidarity of the beloved community in El Paso,” he said, adding: “We know that the path through hatred and pain to still waters and the House of the Lord is built together, with acts of justice reconciliation and love.”
Other bishops, too, reached out with messages of solidarity.
Bishop Robert Brennan of Brooklyn, New York, who said he was “horrified” at the attack, asked for prayers for the victims, their families, and an “end to hate, violence and racism in our country and in the world”.
West Virginia’s Bishop Brennan said that while new laws can help, what’s needed most is “a true change of mind and heart that leads us to recognise and affirm the value of every human life, no matter how different the person is from me.”
“It is the kind of change that authentic religion promotes. God has made us all in his image and likeness. He has commanded us to love one another, to bear one another’s burdens,” he said. “Unless we embrace this understanding more fully in America, we can expect more such tragedies – and against Jews, (Muslims) and immigrants as well as against African Americans.”
He also made an appeal to gun owners to support restrictions.
“We must also face the fact that the widespread availability of guns is a crucial factor in racial violence. It is much harder to escape from a bullet than it is from a knife,” the West Virginia prelate wrote.
He acknowledged that most gun owners have the weapons to protect their families and themselves or for hunting. But he challenged these gun owners “to propose ways in which the availability of guns could be significantly restricted”.
He added, “I have lived in countries where guns are much less available than in the United States and where, correspondingly, gun deaths are much less common. We have to do better than we are doing. Gun owners: Step up to the challenge!”
Photo: A mourner in Buffalo, N.Y., reacts while attending a May 15, 2022, vigil for victims of the shooting a day earlier at a TOPS supermarket. (CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)