(RNS) — San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller was driving back to Uvalde, Texas, on Wednesday morning (May 25) — after having spent most of the previous night there accompanying families in the wake of one of the deadliest school shootings — when he passed by an advertisement promoting guns in the Lone Star State.
“We want children and young people to think differently and the common element to all these situations having happened lately in Buffalo, New York, El Paso and Houston, Texas … the common element is guns, lack of control,” García-Siller told Religion News Service as he was en route to Uvalde.
He condemned gun culture, saying guns are treated as idols and a source of pride among people who may feel like “I am powerful with a gun.”
“We don’t want to give up what that means money-wise, business-wise,” he added.
García-Siller said people can’t be “pro-life” and continue to support laws that allow these kind of shootings to happen. He said a “corrupted political system for years has undermined human beings.”
“If our ethics are not consistent with respecting human life, period, no matter color, language, religion, profession, way of life — life is life — then we are not pro-life,” he said.
Nineteen children and two teachers were killed Tuesday after an 18-year-old gunman stormed into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, a small, predominantly Latino city of about 16,000 residents. The city sits about 80 miles west of San Antonio. About 1 in 5 residents live in poverty.
“What happened yesterday is one more expression of how we leaders have failed,” García-Siller said.
“I have been many years in the United States and I have been working a lot with immigrants and in very impoverished communities, and it’s just, what else? What else can help us realize that we are people, period,” he added.
After the shooting, García-Siller visited Uvalde Memorial Hospital, where many of the shooting victims were taken Tuesday, and he led Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Uvalde that evening. He planned to spend the day in Uvalde again on Wednesday.
García-Siller has met with the husband of one of the teachers killed in the shooting. The archbishop also spoke with a person who called 911 to report the shooting and referenced a woman who drove children to the hospital from the school. “We don’t need heroes. We need just people of goodwill,” he said.
While there was a lot of uncertainty on Tuesday as parents awaited news of their children, now there’s a “piercing pain” knowing the outcome, García-Siller said.
Throughout Texas, a number of houses of worship are holding services and prayer vigils to help the community cope with the aftermath.
St. Ann Catholic Church in La Vernia, Texas, is hosting a Mass Wednesday evening in honor of the victims and families of the shooting.
First Baptist Church of Brackettville is hosting a candlelight prayer vigil Wednesday evening. The Rev. Y.J. Jimenez, the pastor there, accompanied parishioners at the hospital who lost their grandchild in the shooting.
Getty Street Church of Christ in Uvalde is also holding a prayer vigil Wednesday for the surrounding community.
And in Houston, religious leaders are planning an interfaith gathering outside the National Rifle Association’s annual convention this Friday.
Megan Hansen, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, and the Rev. Teresa Kim Pecinovsky, a Disciples of Christ pastor and chaplain in Houston, learned about the convention in the aftermath of the Uvalde massacre and felt called to act.
Pecinovsky said those who support the NRA and the gun lobbying industry “are very much rooted in their own religious perspective.”
“It’s important for us as clergy and people of faith to say that is not the only perspective of people with a faith view,” she said.
Living in Texas, Hansen said, “we’re surrounded by so much of this ‘God and guns’ thought.”
“I’m not even going to call it theology, because I don’t understand how you could think about the divine, and not just in Christianity, but many ways that people considered the creation of the world and the Creator and be able to reconcile that with owning a weapon,” Hansen said.
Added Hansen: “This is very much a Christian problem. Which is one reason we want to be witnesses in this, walking with our other faith communities, because it is our problem. It’s coming from inside our house. ”
(RNS) — Soon after a white 18-year-old shooter targeted Black customers of a community grocery store in Buffalo, New York, on Saturday (May 14), the Rev. Denise Walden, executive director of Voice Buffalo, a social justice and equity organization, was coordinating clergy to offer grief counseling and help families immediately and, she hopes, for the foreseeable future.
She was also grieving personally: She knows the families of most of the 10 people killed in the massacre.
“This is going to take more than a week, more than a month, more than six months,” said Walden, a member of the clergy team at First Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, a predominantly Black congregation in Buffalo. “We need long-term solutions and support.”
Walden’s 25-year-old organization is a local chapter of Live Free, a Christian organization that has in recent years focused on preventing community violence, which now has new questions to answer, Walden said, about “the hate that caused this person to come into this community and create such a horrible, violent violation to our community.”
She said more resources are needed to counter hate in general and to cope with the reaction from Buffalo’s Black community. “When tragedy strikes and those things are not in place,” Walden said, “we create an environment that can become even more dangerous because people don’t know what to do to process their grief and their trauma.”
Walden, 42, spoke with Religion News Service about her connections to the people who died on Buffalo’s East Side, who the community has lost and what it needs now.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The massacre on Saturday occurred at a grocery store in your neighborhood. How did you react to the violence that happened there?
I’m a seven-minute walk away from the grocery store. It’s our community store. We’re there regularly. As far as how I reacted, I think I’m still trying to figure that out. For me it was, how do I show up with and in my community, just being a resource and, hopefully, a person to bring some peace and love that are all much needed in this time. And just being as comforting to those who are closest to the pain from this as possible.
You were one of the officiants of a vigil on Sunday outside the Tops grocery store. What words did you find to say?
It was hard. I think we know that there’s a need for comfort. There’s a need for love in our community. And that was the word, reminding people that we are still a strong community; reminding those of us that live here that in spite of this heinous act that we’ve seen, this is still home. This is our home.
You helped notify family members of those who were killed. Was that an unexpected responsibility or have you done that in the past?
That is definitely an unexpected responsibility. I’ve done little bits of it in my clergy capacity. For our organization it’s completely different and completely new. And I’ve never had to show up that way in something so tragic, and also something that is so closely impacting me as well.
The Rev. Denise Walden. Photo via Voice Buffalo
It must have been very difficult.
Difficult doesn’t even describe it. I don’t think that there are words that can describe what was felt by these families and especially when our community is already in such a deep period of grief just still coming out of the pandemic. And then to now have loved ones ripped away from (them) so violently. That’s very difficult news to deliver to anybody.
Some of those lost have been described as church mothers or community mothers and a deacon — people who may have helped others cope when something like this happens in their community.
They are some of the matriarchs and the pillars of our community. They will be missed in ways that I don’t think I can do justice to describing, but who bring joy to this community. They’re the ones who help stand and hold this community together. Check those of us that need to be checked when we need to be checked. They are such an instrumental part of our community. I know some of them have snatched up my kid, like, “Hey, young man, get it together.” That is a huge loss to our entire community.
How will faith leaders address the mental health needs that there are now?
One of the asks that Voice and our partners have been consistently making is for culturally responsive services — people who understand there is some generational trauma here. People that they can feel a sense of community and trust with. There are very big cultural dynamics at play here. We’re working really hard to coordinate faith effortsalongside mental health providers and we’ve had a call out for faith leaders who are also licensed in providing (such) services.
Is that clergy of color who would understand some of the cultural and long-term dynamics here?
Yes, that can do grief counseling, trauma, counseling, all of those typesof things. But we’ve also put out a call to clergy to just be a presence in this community. Just be a presence of peace, a presence of comfort, a presence of love in this community. Because at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to help us start to process. That’s what’s going to help us start to heal.
Before the shooting, what were you planning to do this week?
I was getting ready to go to my sister’s graduation. She’s graduating with her second master’s degree and with honors. We were planning a great family Saturday to just all be together before I was leaving out of town. (But) I need to be here with my family. That’s my actual family, my husband and my children, but I also need to be here with my family that is my community. And so, for that reason, I won’t be traveling, and I’m grateful because she understands.
(RNS) — The man authorities say opened fire in a Buffalo grocery store Saturday (May 14), killing 10 mostly Black shoppers, was an avowed white supremacist. But his agenda went far beyond Blacks.
In the 180-page manifesto posted online two days before he carried out his attack, the 18-year-old gunman wrote that he chose the Tops Friendly Market on Buffalo’s east side because it is in an area with many Black residents. Eleven of the 13 people shot there were Black, law enforcement officials said.
Blacks, wrote Payton Gendron, come from a culture that sought to “ethnically replace my own people.”
But at the root of this xenophobic plan, known as replacement theory, are Jews to whom the alleged shooter devotes as much vitriol. Traditionally, Jews are depicted as stealth invaders who manipulate Western elites to disempower and replace white Americans.
Both Blacks and Jews are bound together in white supremacy, watchers of the movement say.
“You can’t separate the racism and antisemitism,” said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, the nonprofit that successfully sued organizers of the 2018 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where marchers chanted “The Jews will not replace us.”
“There needs to be some conspiracy responsible for everything terrible that these white supremacists think is happening to this country as a result of Black and brown people, immigrants and refugees,” said Spitalnick.
Dozens of pages in the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto are devoted first to Blacks and then to Jews, replete with photos, drawings, graphs and caricatures.
On Sunday and Monday, scores of American Jewish organizations loudly denounced the massacre, which the U.S. Justice Department is investigating as “a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism.”
The Anti-Defamation League, the National Urban League and others called on President Biden to convene a summit on hate and extremism and to develop a plan to combat hate crimes, white supremacy and violent extremism.
The “great replacement theory” that binds racism and antisemitism was once an obscure extremist idea relegated to white supremacist forums. But in recent years it has become mainstream, especially as Fox TV host Tucker Carlson has made the Democrats’ intent to dilute the white voting population a central theme of his show. Several congressional Republicans have echoed it or outright embraced the notion.
At its root, the theory holds that not only is immigration to the United States crowding out whites, but that a cadre of elites, including Jews, are intentionally encouraging that to happen.
That charge is not new, said Samuel Perry, professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and a leading expert on white Christian nationalism. It’s core to many authoritarian movements, stretching back to Nazi Germany.
The idea, said Perry, is that white people aren’t fertile enough and that it is “everybody’s responsibility to outbreed the negative elements we don’t want in our society,” he said.
“It’s wrapped up in ethno-cultural outsiders: immigrants, Jews and Muslims. They are a threat to white hegemony,” Perry said.
The theory appeared to go dormant for some years but resurfaced in Norway in 2011 when Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people. In 2019 in New Zealand, Brenton H. Tarrant killed 51 people in a pair of mosques while warning of “white genocide.”
About 20% of Gendron’s manifesto appears to be plagiarized from the declaration left by the New Zealand shooter, according to an analysis conducted by the Khalifa Ihler Institute, a Sweden-based think tank that seeks to combat extremism, The Washington Post reported.
In the U.S., white supremacy has a long history that has lately reemerged in mass-shooting sprees such as the 2015 massacre of nine people at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Gendron praised Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter, in his manifesto. Roof, like Breivik, he wrote, “fought for me and had the same goals I did.”
Three years later, Jews were the target when Robert Bowers gunned down 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, because he thought they were working to admit immigrant “invaders” into the United States.
For whatever reason, the Buffalo gunman sidestepped Jews this time, writing, “They can be dealt with in time.”
But he hardly spared them.
“The Jews are the biggest problem the Western world has ever had,” the manifesto reads. “They must be called out and killed, if they are lucky they will be exiled. We can not show any sympathy towards them again.”
White supremacists view American Jews as liberal, stereotypically tied up with institutions, such as government, media and academia, that are viewed as left-leaning and secular.
American Blacks, who are overwhelmingly Christian, are also on the wrong side of politics in the minds of xenophobes. Tending to vote Democratic, they are thought to support immigration — and to be a danger to white culture in themselves.
In the manifesto, Gendron writes about Blacks nearly the same way as about Jews. “We must remove blacks from our western civilizations,” his screed said.
Many Jewish groups issued statements of solidarity with Blacks Monday.
“Today, our multiracial Jewish community sits in grief, extending our love, solidarity, and support to the Black community in Buffalo and all who are in pain,” wrote Jamie Beran, interim CEO of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action. “Tomorrow, we rise in partnership to hold the politicians and corporations profiting from the spread of dangerous conspiracies accountable.”
Many are hoping the two groups can come together to fight the onslaught of hate.
“There needs to be clear recognition that you can’t take on antisemitism without taking on the various forms of hate bound up in white supremacy,” said Spitalnick. “All of our lives are intertwined.”
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(RNS) — Sunday school and other Christian education programs have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, with half of congregations surveyed saying their programs were disrupted.
A March 2022 survey by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that larger churches with more than 100 people were more successful in maintaining their educational programming for children and youth, often using in-person or hybrid options. Smaller churches, especially those with 50 or fewer attendees, were least likely to say they continued religious education without disruption.
Scott Thumma, principal investigator of the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project, said the findings echoed concerns about general education of schoolchildren, where researchers have seen declines in learning over the last two years.
“My sense is that people knew what good robust Sunday school was or what a successful vacation Bible school was,” said Thumma, drawing in part on open-ended comments in the survey. “And they couldn’t parallel that using Zoom or using livestreaming or using take-home boxes of activities. It just wasn’t the same thing. And so when they evaluated it, it just didn’t measure up to what they previously knew as the standard of a good quality religious education program.”
The findings are the third installment in the five-year project, a collaboration with 13 denominations from the Faith Communities Today cooperative partnership and institute staffers.
The new report, “Religious Education During the Pandemic: A Tale of Challenge and Creativity,” is based on responses from 615 congregations across 31 denominations.
Comparing data from 2019, churches surveyed in March 2022 reported that the attendance of their religious education programs had decreased an average of 30% among children younger than 13 and 40% among youth, ages 13-17.
“Analysis showed that those who closed their programs had the greatest decline in involvement even after they restarted,” the new report states. “Likewise, churches that moved religious education online lost a higher percentage of participants than churches who modified their efforts with safety protocols but continued meeting in person either outdoors or in small groups.”
The report notes that it’s not surprising the smallest churches experienced the most disruption in their religious education, given the decline in volunteer numbers and additional stresses on clergy during the pandemic.
“In the smallest churches (1-50 attendees) pastors were most likely in charge of the religious education programs, while for those between 51 and 100 worshippers, volunteers bore the bulk of leadership responsibilities,” according to the report.
Overall, evangelical churches reported experiencing the least disruption to their educational programs, while mainline churches reported the most, followed by Catholic and Orthodox congregations.
Vacation Bible school, long a staple of congregational outreach to local communities, has also been shaken by COVID-19. More than a third (36%) of churches offered such programs prior to the pandemic. That number decreased to 17% in 2020 and jumped back to 36% in the summer of 2021. Slightly less than a third (31%) reported VBS plans for 2022.
While children’s programming was greatly affected by congregational change during the pandemic, adult religious programs saw the smallest decreases compared with pre-pandemic levels, with a quarter growing since 2019 and an almost equal percentage (23%) remaining even.
But, as with children’s programs, churches with 50 or fewer worshippers saw the greatest loss in adult religious education, while those with more than 250 in worship attendance increased their adult programs by an average of 19%.
Some congregations reported moving Sunday school activities to weeknights or vacation Bible schools from weekday mornings to later hours, with mixed results.
“One said they ‘went from a typical 200+ kids to about 35,’” the report notes, and they “’shortened the number of days and moved VBS to the afternoon.’”
Thumma said innovations including intergenerational and kid-friendly programming helped sustain programs for people of all ages in some congregations. These included revamping of the children’s message time during worship to be more inclusive or older members greeting children who run by during Zoom sessions. Some churches called their all-ages activities “messy church” or “Sunday Funday” as they used interactive educational events.
“It becomes, out of necessity, intergenerational because that allows you to have robust energy and lots of people there,” he said. “But it really is directed at the kids being involved in the life of the congregation in a way that isn’t, like, ‘OK, you go to your class’ and ‘you go to your classes,’ and the classes don’t ever mingle.”
Whether creative steps such as new intergenerational activity will continue remains to be seen, Thumma added.
“I think it should because that’s a valuable strategy,” he said. “One of the things that we’ve seen in lots of our research is the more intergenerational the congregation is, the more it has a diversity of any degree, the more likely they are to be vital and thriving.”
The findings in the new report of the project, which is funded by the Lilly Endowment, have an estimated overall margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
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(RNS) — As Miami-Dade County in Florida grapples with a housing affordability crisis, houses of worship are being recruited to build affordable homes on vacant or underutilized church land.
The national nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners on Thursday (April 21) announced $1.3 million in grant funding from the Wells Fargo Foundation that would go toward helping 15 South Florida congregations convert underused church property.
The nonprofit will assist clergy, who may lack the resources or knowledge to cut housing deals, in navigating the development process, negotiating long-term ground lease agreements and vetting development partners, such as architects and designers.
This effort is part of the nonprofit’s Faith-Based Development Initiative that launched in 2006 in the Mid-Atlantic region, where it has helped faith-based organizations create or preserve more than 1,500 affordable homes and one community-based health clinic.
So far, $8.5 million has been committed in a new push to help congregations in Atlanta, New York, Baltimore, Miami and Seattle build affordable housing on their properties.
In South Florida, this money is being made available just as Mayor Daniella Levine Cava in early April declared a state of emergency over housing affordability.
Faith leaders, along with county and housing officials, on Thursday (April 21) gathered at Koinonia Worship Center to talk about the steps congregations could take to build housing on their church land. The gathering was held in partnership with the Collective Empowerment Group of South Florida, a group of local churches that aims to provide homebuyer training and credit counseling services in the area.
David Bowers, vice president at Enterprise Community Partners, said this effort makes “radical common sense,” allowing congregations that are “sitting on a resource” to “be good and faithful stewards.”
“We will share lessons from you with others in cities around the country who are at work as we expand this movement,” Bowers, who is also an ordained minister, said Thursday.
Over the last few years the county has partnered with faith-based organizations to build seven affordable rental developments, said Jorge Damian de la Paz, a representative of the mayor, at the Thursday gathering. These projects stretch across Miami-Dade County, from Miami Gardens down to Richmond Heights.
Citing property records, de la Paz said there are more than 1,220 parcels in Miami-Dade County currently being used exclusively for religious purposes. This includes churches, synagogues and mosques. In total, houses of worship sit on at least 95 million square feet of land in Miami-Dade County, he said.
“Religious organizations, in aggregate, are some of the largest owners of land in Miami-Dade County,” de la Paz said.
“Some of these lots could potentially be used to build affordable housing or … some type of community facility to serve congregants in a new way and generate additional revenue to the organization,” he said.
One example is Second Baptist Church of Richmond Heights. In 2016, the church opened the Reverend John & Anita Ferguson Residence Apartments, which provides 79 units of affordable housing for seniors.
The Rev. Alphonso Jackson, pastor of Second Baptist Church, helped oversee the project, which was a vision of the former pastor, the Rev. John Ferguson, who secured the land adjacent to the church.
“It was our desire to complete the vision he had,” Jackson said on Thursday.
Jackson said they sought to secure the necessary funds to build the project in a way that “wouldn’t be a burden to the church.” They formed a community development corporation and dealt with housing bonds, tax credits and grant funding.
Although it was years in the making, “it ended up being a wonderful project,” Jackson said.
“It adds to the community. It increased the property value of the community. It is not an eye sore. It is something very nice … We are very proud of it,” he said.
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(RNS) — Pastors in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are taking action as the city reels in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya by a Grand Rapids police officer on April 4. Video footage of the shooting was released on Wednesday (April 13), sparking protests outside the city’s police department.
Lyoya, who is Black, was pulled over last week for a mismatched license plate. Video footage shows a white officer shooting Lyoya in the head after a brief scuffle. Lyoya and his family arrived from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2014 as refugees, and he leaves behind his parents, two young daughters and five siblings.
In the days since Lyoya’s death, a group of Black pastors in Grand Rapids, called the Black Clergy Coalition, has been organizing community events to promote dialogue, healing and justice.
“We think that our faith perspective is critical in this hour, to not just discuss policy change, which is necessary, but to also discuss the spiritual and faith dynamic,” said Pastor Jathan K. Austin of Bethel Empowerment Church in Grand Rapids. “We must continue to keep our trust in the Father so that people don’t lose trust in this time because of the heartache, the pain.”
On Sunday (April 10), the group helped organize a forum for community discussion in response to Lyoya’s death. The discussion took place at Renaissance Church of God in Christ in Grand Rapids — the location was intentional, according to the church’s senior pastor, Bishop Dennis J. McMurray, who noted the wider church’s historic role in guiding civil rights movements and said the Black Clergy Coalition is drawing on that legacy.
“It was unreal, the level of cooperative dialogue and understanding that took place,” McMurray told Religion News Service. “If these conversations would have started almost anywhere else, the volatility that could be associated to something as devastating as what we’re facing could have been a bomb that goes off that would cause so many other issues.”
The group also helped host a Thursday press conference at the Renaissance Church of God in Christ and a noon Good Friday service at the church, where they took up a collection for the Lyoya family.
The Rev. Khary Bridgewater, who lives in Grand Rapids, said the city’s racial and religious landscape informs how local leaders are responding to Lyoya’s death. Grand Rapids has a population that’s over 65% white and about 18% Black. It’s also the headquarters for the Christian Reformed Church, a small, historically Dutch Reformed denomination, and is home to over 40 CRC churches. According to Bridgewater, leaders shaped by the CRC’s reformed theology are often more likely to advocate for change within existing systems.
According to Bridgewater, “It’s very hard for most CRC churches to look at a system and say, ‘This is wrong, we’re going to act as activists to push the system into a different state.’ They’re more inclined to say, ‘Hey, let’s sit down and have a conversation with the leaders and try to do things differently.’” Bridgewater says this theology can bump up against the Black church’s prophetic tradition of change-making. For this reason, he said, Christian groups in Grand Rapids need to have theological discussions around topics like justice and citizenship.
Nik Smith, a Grand Rapids activist and member of Defund the GRPD, agrees the city’s religious culture is shaping local leaders’ responses.
“The nonprofits are run by Christian folk who are just waiting for Jesus to come, not realizing not only was he here already, but he’s given us things to live by,” said Smith. “So we have to be seeking justice actively in our community. We can’t just say, let’s pray. Prayer is not going to bring Patrick back.”
Smith has been involved in Defund the GRPD since 2020, when the coalition first began advocating for reducing the police budget and refunding over-policed communities. Though Smith doesn’t identify as a Christian as strongly as she once did, she believes the Bible highlights the consequences of earthly authorities wielding too much power and the importance of working to make the world a better place. For Smith, defunding the Grand Rapids Police Department is part of securing a better future.
For years, the city’s police department has been criticized for racial profiling and for drawing guns on Black children. Joseph D. Jones, who is a city commissioner and pastor, told Religion News Service he wants to address police and community relations by looking at “root causes” of socio-economic inequality and other disparities while also addressing training for officers.
“I do believe in the absolute power of prayer,” Jones added. “I’m asking those who do pray … to pray for the family of Patrick, to pray for our city, to pray that angels are encamped around our city to protect our city and to pray that God restore and change the hearts of those who desire to engage in anything that is seen as evil in our country and our world,” Jones said.
Austin of Bethel Empowerment Church said the Black Clergy Coalition has long been advocating for police reform and specifically wants to see better diversity and culture training for officers and changes in how the department responds to police shootings.
“I am going to allow the wheels of justice to roll, and we pray that they roll properly,” said McMurray, who is also part of the coalition. “We are working, but we’re also watching.”
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