Race Is Often Used as Medical Shorthand for How Bodies Work. Some Doctors Want to Change That.

Race Is Often Used as Medical Shorthand for How Bodies Work. Some Doctors Want to Change That.

Several months ago, a lab technologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital mixed the blood components of two people: Alphonso Harried, who needed a kidney, and Pat Holterman-Hommes, who hoped to give him one.

The goal was to see whether Harried’s body would instantly see Holterman-Hommes’ organ as a major threat and attack it before surgeons could finish a transplant. To do that, the technologist mixed in fluorescent tags that would glow if Harried’s immune defense forces would latch onto the donor’s cells in preparation for an attack. If, after a few hours, the machine found lots of glowing, it meant the kidney transplant would be doomed. It stayed dark: They were a match.

“I was floored,” said Harried.

Both recipient and donor were a little surprised. Harried is Black. Holterman-Hommes is white.

Could a white person donate a kidney to a Black person? Would race get in the way of their plans? Both families admitted those kinds of questions were flitting around in their heads, even though they know, deep down, that “it’s more about your blood type — and all of our blood is red,” as Holterman-Hommes put it.

Scientists widely agree that race is a social construct, yet it is often conflated with biology, leaving the impression that a person’s race governs how the body functions.

“It’s not just laypeople — it’s in the medical field as well. People often conflate race with biology,” said Dr. Marva Moxey-Mims, chief of pediatric nephrology at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C.

She’s not talking just about kidney medicine. Race has been used as a shorthand for how people’s bodies work for years across many fields — not out of malice but because it was based on what was considered the best science available at the time. The science was not immune to the racialized culture it sprung from, which is now being seen in a new light. For example, U.S. pediatricians recently ditched a calculation that assumed Black children were less likely to get a urinary tract infection after new research found the risk had to do with a child’s history of fevers and past infections — not race. And obstetricians removed race and ethnicity from a calculation meant to gauge a patient’s ability to have a vaginal birth after a previous cesarean section, once they determined it was based on flawed science. Still, researchers say those race-based guidelines are just a slice of those being used to assess patients, and are largely based on the assumption that how a person looks or identifies reflects their genetic makeup.

Race does have its place during a doctor’s visit, however. Medical providers who give patients culturally competent care — the act of acknowledging a patient’s heritage, beliefs, and values during treatment — often see improved patient outcomes. Culturally competent doctors understand that overt racism and microaggressions can not only cause mental distress but also that racial trauma can make a person physically sick. Race is a useful tool for identifying population-level disparities, but experts now say it is not very useful in making decisions about how to treat an individual patient.

Because using race as a medical shorthand is at best imprecise and at worst harmful, a conversation is unfolding nationally among lawmakers, scientists, and doctors who say one of the best things patients can do is ask if — and how — their race is factored into their care.

Doctors and researchers in kidney care have been active recently in reevaluating their use of race-based medical guidance.

“History is being written right now that this is not the right thing to do and that the path forward is to use race responsibly and not to do it in the way that we’ve been doing in the past,” says Dr. Nwamaka Eneanya, a nephrologist with Fresenius Medical Care, who in a previous position with the University of Pennsylvania traced in the journal Nature the history of how race — a social construct— became embedded in medicine.

The perception that there is such a thing as a “Black” or “white” kidney quietly followed patient and donor as Harried and Holterman-Hommes were on the path to the transplant — in their medical records and in the screening tests recommended.

Medical records described Harried as a “47-year-old Black or African American male” and Holterman-Hommes as a “58-year-old, married Caucasian female.” Harried does not recall ever providing his race or speaking with his physicians about the influence of race on his care, but for two years or more his classification as “Black or African American” was a factor in the equations doctors used to estimate how well his kidneys were working. As previous KHN reporting lays out, that practice — distinguishing between “Black” and “non-Black” bodies — was the norm. In fall 2021, a national committee determined race has no place in estimating kidney function, a small but significant step in revising how race is considered.

Dr. Lisa McElroy, a surgeon who performs kidney transplants at Duke University, said the constant consideration of race “is the rule, not the exception, in medicine.”

“Medicine or health care is a little bit like art. It reflects the culture,” she said. “Race is a part of our culture, and it shows up all through it — and health care is no different.”

McElroy no longer mentions race in her patients’ notes, because it “really has no bearing on the clinical care plan or biology of disease.”

Still, such assumptions extend throughout health care. Some primary care doctors, for example, continue to hew to an assumption that Black patients cannot handle certain kinds of blood pressure medications, even while researchers have concluded those assumptions don’t make sense, distract doctors from considering factors more important than race — like whether the patient has access to nutritious food and stable housing — and could prevent patients from achieving better health by limiting their options.

Studying population-level patterns is important for identifying where disparities exist, but that doesn’t mean people’s bodies innately function differently — just as population-level disparities in pay do not indicate one gender is fundamentally more capable of hard work.

“If you see group differences … they’re usually driven by what we do to groups,” said Dr. Keith Norris, not by innate differences in those groups. Still, medicine often continues to use race as a crude catchall, said Norris, a UCLA nephrologist, “as if every Black person in America experiences the same amount and the same quantity of structural racism, individualized racism, internalized racism, and gene polymorphisms.”

In Harried and Holterman-Hommes’ case, one striking example of race being used as shorthand for determining how people’s bodies work was an informational guide given to Holterman-Hommes that said African Americans with high blood pressure could not donate an organ, but Caucasians with high blood pressure might still qualify.

“I can’t believe they actually wrote that down,” said Dr. Vanessa Grubbs, a nephrologist at the University of California-San Francisco. That worries Grubbs because using race as a reason to exclude donors can create a situation in which Black transplant recipients have to work harder to find a living donor than others would.

“I do think that criteria such as these become barriers for transplantation,” said Dr. Rajnish Mehrotra, head of nephrology at the University of Washington. He said that type of hypertension distinction could exclude potential donors — like the 56% of Black adults with high blood pressure in the U.S. — when more of them are sorely needed.

The inclusion of race did not necessarily affect Harried’s ability to receive a kidney, nor Holterman-Hommes’ ability to give him one. But following their case offers a glimpse into the ways race and biology are often cemented together.

The St. Louis Case

Harried and Holterman-Hommes met 20 years ago when they worked together at a nonprofit that serves youth experiencing homelessness in St. Louis. Harried was the guy who pulled kids out of their ruts and into a creative mindset, from which they would write poems and songs and do artwork. Holterman-Hommes said he was “the calm in their storm.” Harried calls Holterman-Hommes “big stuff” because she is the nonprofit’s CEO who keeps the lights on and the donations coming in. “You never knew that she was the president of the company,” said Harried. “There wasn’t an air about her.”

Harried resigned in 2018 as his health declined. Then in 2021, Holterman-Hommes saw a KHN article about Harried and decided to see if she could help her former colleague. Although Holterman-Hommes’ mother was born with one kidney, she had lived a long and healthy life, so Holterman-Hommes figured she could spare one of her own.

As Holterman-Hommes explored becoming a donor candidate, initial tests showed high blood pressure readings, in addition to lower-than-ideal kidney function. But “I like to get an A on a test,” she said, so she redid both sets of tests, repeating the kidney function test after staying better hydrated and the blood pressure test after a big work deadline had passed. She moved on in the screening process after her results improved.

Grubbs wonders whether, if Holterman-Hommes had been Black, “they would have just dismissed her.” Grubbs shared an instance in which she suspects that’s exactly what happened to the wife of a patient of hers in California who needed a kidney transplant.

The wife, who is Black and was in her 50s at the time, wasn’t allowed to give the patient a kidney because of her hypertension.

“There are people in this country that will tell you that, ‘Oh, white people donate kidneys, Black people don’t donate kidneys, and that’s not true,’” said Mehrotra. “You hear that racist trope. But [there are] all of these barriers to kidney donation.”

Barnes-Jewish Hospital later said it had given Holterman-Hommes an outdated guide, “an unfortunate circumstance that is being corrected,” and provided a new one that does not say Black people with hypertension cannot donate. Instead, it says that people cannot donate if they have hypertension that was either diagnosed before age 40 or requires more than one medication to manage.

But “at some point, it was a policy,” said Harried, whose kidneys have been failing for several years. And it’s unclear how many years that “outdated” guidance shaped perceptions among those seeking care at Barnes-Jewish, which performs more living-donor kidney transplants per year than any other location in Missouri, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients.

There is little transparency into how medical centers incorporate race into their decision-making and care. Guidelines from the United Network for Organ Sharing, the national organization in charge of the transplant system, leave the door open for hospitals to “exclude a donor with any condition that, in the hospital’s medical judgment, causes the donor to be unsuitable for organ donation.”

Tanjala Purnell, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health studying disparities in kidney transplantation, said she knows of several centers that used race-based criteria, though some have relaxed those rules, instead deciding case by case. “There’s not a standard set to say, ‘Well, no, you can absolutely not have different rules for different people,’” she said. “We don’t have those safeguards.” Dr. Tarek Alhamad, medical director of the kidney program at the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center, said race-based criteria for kidney donations aren’t created to exclude Black people — it was born of a desire to avoid harming them.

“African Americans are more likely to have end-stage renal disease, they are more likely to have end-stage renal disease related to hypertension. And they are more likely to have genetic factors that would lead to kidney dysfunction,” said Alhamad.

Compared with white and Hispanic donors, non-Hispanic Black donors are known to be at higher risk for developing kidney failure because of their donation, though it’s still very rare.

He said it feels unethical to take a kidney from someone who may really need it down the line. “This is our role as physicians not to do harm.”

The Science

Researchers are studying a possible way to clarify who is really at risk in donating a kidney, by identifying specific risk factors rather than pinning odds on the vague concept of race.

Specifically, a gene called APOL1 could influence a person’s likelihood of developing kidney disease. All humans have two copies of this gene, but there are different versions, or variants, of it. Having two risk variants increases the chance of kidney injury.

The risk variants are most prevalent in people with recent African ancestry, a group that crosses racial and ethnic boundaries. About 13% of African Americans have the double whammy of two risk variants, said Dr. Barry Freedman, chief of nephrology at the Wake Forest School of Medicine. Even then, he said, their fate isn’t sealed — most people in that group won’t get kidney failure. “We think they need a second hit, like HIV infection, or lupus, or covid-19.”

Freedman is leading a study that looks, in part, at how kidney donors with those risk variants fare in the long term.

“This is really important because the hope is that kidneys won’t be discarded or turned down as frequently,” said Moxey-Mims, who is also involved in the research.

Researchers who are focused on health equity say that while APOL1 testing could help separate race from genetics, it could be a double-edged sword. Purnell pointed out that if APOL1 is misused — for example, if a transplant center makes a blanket rule that no one with two risk variants can donate, rather than using it as a starting point for shared decision-making, or if doctors offer the test based only on a patient’s looks — it could merely add another criterion to the list by which certain people are excluded.

“We have to do our due diligence,” said Purnell, to ensure that any effort to be protective doesn’t end up “making the pool of available donors for certain groups smaller and smaller and smaller.” Purnell, McElroy, and others steeped in transplant inequities say that as long as race — which is a cultural concept defining how someone identifies, or how they are perceived — is used as a stand-in for someone’s ancestry or genetics, the line between protecting and excluding people will remain fuzzy.

“That’s the heart of the matter here,” said McElroy.

So where does race belong in kidney transplant medicine? Many of the physicians interviewed for this article — many of them people of color — said it primarily serves as a potential indicator of hurdles patients may face, rather than as a marker of how their bodies function.

For example, McElroy said she might spend more time with Black patients building trust with them and their families, or talking about how important living donations can be, similar to the ways she might spend more time with a Spanish-speaking patient making sure they know how to access a translator, or with an elderly patient emphasizing how important physical activity is.

“The purpose is not to ignore the social determinants of health — of which race is one,” she said. “It’s to try to help them overcome the race-specific or ethnicity-specific barriers to receiving excellent care.”

While all the science gets sorted out, Eneanya is trying to get the message out to patients: “Just ask the question: ‘Is my race being used in my clinical care?’ And if it is, first of all, what race is in the chart? Is it affecting my care? And what are my options?”

“Just keep your eyes open, ask questions,” said Harried.

In late April, a kidney from Holterman-Hommes’ body was successfully placed into Harried’s. Both are home now and say they are doing well.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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A Freedom That Can’t Be Stolen

A Freedom That Can’t Be Stolen

Imagine being a slave, and on this particular day, Union Army Major General Gordon Granger forced your master to set you free immediately! You and your master may have heard about the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, but it didn’t free you.

Gaining physical freedom is one thing. But how did formerly enslaved people gain emotional freedom while avoiding the heavy chains of emotional slavery due to the incredible injustice of their past and present reality? What possible relationship could or would they have with their former master?

What about you? As many are focused on celebrating Juneteenth and freedom, are you still in emotional chains due to injustice? How do you go on functioning while injustice continues? Black people are still being shot. Churches and schools are targets for mass murders.

Maybe you’re not in physical chains, but are you emotionally enslaved?

Want your freedom? When thinking of slavery, Grandma Shuler, my dad’s mom, always comes to mind. She was born in 1879 in South Carolina where an unofficial slavery still existed! This eighty-five-year-old’s smile and lack of bitterness profoundly impacted me when I was ten years old.

I considered becoming a Black Panther because the Ku Klux Klan ran from them. It was difficult for Blacks to be anything other than sharecroppers (a new kind of slavery) immediately after slavery was abolished. Grandma and Grandpa and their adult children lived on the same land where their parents had been enslaved. Their house’s foundation was a slave shack with an outhouse. This was 1964!

My dad has some of Grandma’s genes. He and many Black men like him had a quiet dignity no matter how badly they were treated in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. They didn’t fight back or curse at their oppressors. Injustice couldn’t break their spirits.

But how do you reconcile Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the recent shootings at the school in Uvalde, TX, and the grocery store in Buffalo, NY?

Initially, I felt that part of me died when I heard about the struggle and murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Certainly, I wasn’t free emotionally. Ironically, God spoke to me through a radio interview with two White humbled co-hosts who had done their homework. They got me talking about these murders. Surprisingly, it was therapeutic. I didn’t realize I needed to talk about it instead of keeping it inside. Many Black men don’t process it externally, which is slowly killing them.

How should we handle injustice when peaceful efforts require more discipline than giving in to our emotions? History shows us there is power in “radical love and forgiveness.” When Dylann Roof murdered nine members of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., during a prayer meeting in June 2015, many surviving friends and family shocked the nation when they chose to forgive. Emmanuel AME is one of the oldest Black congregations in the South and has a long history of anti-slavery activism, civil rights protests, and ongoing political engagement. Even the late pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims shot that day, was a state senator who pushed for police to wear body cameras. So why forgive? Chris Singleton, who lost his mother in the attack, told USA Today, “After seeing what happened and the reason why it happened, and after seeing how people could forgive, I truly hope that people will see that it wasn’t just us saying words,” Singleton says. “I know, for a fact, that it was something greater than us, using us to bring our city together.”

When we don’t forgive, we put ourselves in emotional slavery. Our unforgiveness subconsciously permeates every relationship – and I’ve found that relationships are the key to healing racial divides. A freedom that can never be stolen is not about how people treat me. It’s all about how I choose to respond to it. In my latest book, Life-Changing, Cross-Cultural Friendships, which I co-wrote with Gary Chapman, author The 5 Love Languages, we talk in depth about our journey of an authentic friendship through some of the most racially divisive times in history and provide a roadmap for others to do the same.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to

forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is

some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this,

we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

My grandma couldn’t force White people or anyone else to give her justice, equality, or simply human courtesy, yet she continued to smile. Grandma was not weak. When she spoke, people moved. This barely five-foot-tall woman lived with her six-foot two-inch husband, raised seven children, and could still shoot her rifle with accuracy well into her eighties. She couldn’t go to the hospital to give birth. She and Grandpa lived off the land to survive and fed their children without a formal education. Imagine all that she saw, being born in 1879 and living until 1971. Her freedom was not dependent on White people giving her their version of justice. She treated all people with respect. She said, “As I’m treating others with respect, even some mean White people, I’m loving God and respecting myself.”

And, of course, Grandma smiled.

 

 

About the. Author

Clarence Shuler is the President/CEO of BLR: Building Lasting Relationships. He’s authored ten books. He and Dr. Gary Chapman speak together at The 5 Love Languages, Date Night, and Life-Changing Cross-Cultural Friendship events. For more information, visit www.clarenceshuler.com.

 

Criminal justice algorithms: Being race-neutral doesn’t mean race-blind

Criminal justice algorithms: Being race-neutral doesn’t mean race-blind

An algorithm is the centerpiece of one criminal justice reform program, but should it be race-blind? the_burtons/Moment via Getty Images
Duncan Purves, University of Florida and Jeremy Davis, University of Florida

Justice is supposed to be “blind.” But is race blindness always the best way to achieve racial equality? An algorithm to predict recidivism among prison populations is underscoring that debate.

The risk-assessment tool is a centerpiece of the First Step Act, which Congress passed in 2018 with significant bipartisan support, and is meant to shorten some criminal sentences and improve conditions in prisons. Among other changes, it rewards federal inmates with early release if they participate in programs designed to reduce their risk of re-offending. Potential candidates eligible for early release are identified using the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs, called PATTERN, which estimates an inmate’s risk of committing a crime upon release.

Proponents celebrated the First Step Act as a step toward criminal justice reform that provides a clear path to reducing the prison population of low-risk nonviolent offenders while preserving public safety.

But a review of the PATTERN system published by the Department of Justice in December 2021 found that PATTERN overpredicts recidivism among minority inmates by between 2% and 8% compared with white inmates. Critics fear that PATTERN is reinforcing racial biases that have long plagued the U.S. prison system.

As ethicists who research the use of algorithms in the criminal justice system, we spend lots of time thinking about how to avoid replicating racial bias with new technologies. We seek to understand whether systems like PATTERN can be made racially equitable while continuing to serve the function for which they were designed: to reduce prison populations while maintaining public safety.

Making PATTERN equally accurate for all inmates might require the algorithm to take inmates’ race into account, which can seem counterintuitive. In other words, achieving fair outcomes across racial groups might require focusing more on race, not less: a seeming paradox that plays out in many discussions of fairness and racial justice.

How PATTERN works

The PATTERN algorithm scores individuals according to a range of variables that have been shown to predict recidivism. These factors include criminal history, education level, disciplinary incidents while incarcerated, and whether they have completed any programs aimed at reducing recidivism, among others. The algorithm predicts both general and violent recidivism, and does not take an inmate’s race into account when producing risk scores.

Based on this score, individuals are deemed high-, medium- or low-risk. Only those falling into the last category are eligible for early release.

A woman in a white suit looks up at a man in a suit with his back to the camera.
Then-President Donald Trump listens as Alice Marie Johnson, who was incarcerated for 21 years, speaks at the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration at the White House. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The DOJ’s latest review, which compares PATTERN predictions with actual outcomes of former inmates, shows that the algorithm’s errors tended to disadvantage nonwhite inmates.

In comparison with white inmates, PATTERN overpredicted general recidivism among Black male inmates by between 2% and 3%. According to the DOJ report, this number rose to 6% to 7% for Black women, relative to white women. PATTERN overpredicted recidivism in Hispanic individuals by 2% to 6% in comparison with white inmates, and overpredicted recidivism among Asian men by 7% to 8% in comparison with white inmates.

These disparate results will likely strike many people as unfair, with the potential to reinforce existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. For example, Black Americans are already incarcerated at almost five times the rate of white Americans.

At the same time that the algorithm overpredicted recidivism for some racial groups, it underpredicted for others.

Native American men’s general recidivism was underpredicted by 12% to 15% in relation to white inmates, with a 2% underprediction for violent recidivism. Violent recidivism was underpredicted by 4% to 5% for Black men and 1% to 2% for Black women.

Reducing bias by including race

It is tempting to conclude that the Department of Justice should abandon the system altogether. However, computer and data scientists have developed an array of tools over the past decade designed to address concerns about algorithmic unfairness. So it is worth asking whether PATTERN’s inequalities can be remedied.

One option is to apply “debiasing techniques” of the sort described in recent work by criminal justice experts Jennifer Skeem and Christopher Lowenkamp. As computer scientists and legal scholars have observed, the predictive value of a piece of information about a person might vary depending on their other characteristics. For example, suppose that having stable housing tends to reduce the risk that a former inmate will commit another crime, but that the relationship between housing and not re-offending is stronger for white inmates than Black inmates. An algorithm could take this into account for higher accuracy.

But taking this difference into account would require that designers include each inmate’s race in the algorithm, which raises legal concerns. Treating individuals differently on the basis of race in legal decision-making risks violating the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

Several legal scholars, including Deborah Hellman, have recently argued that this legal concern is overstated. For example, the law permits using racial classifications to describe criminal suspects and to gather demographic data on the census.

Other uses of racial classifications are more problematic. For example, racial profiling and affirmative action programs continue to be contested in court. But Hellman argues that designing algorithms that are sensitive to the way that information’s predictive value varies across racial lines is more akin to using race in suspect descriptions and the census.

In part, this is because race-sensitive algorithms, unlike racial profiling, do not rely on statistical generalizations about the prevalence of a feature, like the rate of re-offending, within a racial group. Rather, she proposes making statistical generalizations about the reliability of the algorithm’s information for members of a racial group and adjusting appropriately.

But there are also several ethical concerns to consider. Incorporating race might constitute unfair treatment. It might fail to treat inmates as individuals, since it relies upon statistical facts about the racial group to which they are assigned. And it might put some inmates in a worse position than others to earn early-release credits, merely because of their race.

Key difference

Despite these concerns, we argue there are good ethical reasons to incorporate race into the algorithm.

First, by incorporating race, the algorithm could be more accurate across all racial groups. This might allow the federal prison system to grant early release to more inmates who pose a low risk of recidivism while keeping high-risk inmates behind bars. This will promote justice without sacrificing public safety – what proponents of criminal justice reform want.

Furthermore, changing the algorithm to include race can improve outcomes for Black inmates without making things worse for white inmates. This is because earning credits toward early release from prison is not a zero-sum game; one person’s eligibility for the early release program does not affect anyone else’s. This is very different from programs like affirmative action in hiring or education. In these cases, positions are limited, so making things better for one group necessarily makes things worse for the other group.

As PATTERN illustrates, racial equality is not necessarily promoted by taking race out of the equation – at least not when all participants stand to benefit.

[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]The Conversation

Duncan Purves, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Florida and Jeremy Davis, Postdoctoral Associate, University of Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Healing the Divide: An Interview with Derwin Gray

Healing the Divide: An Interview with Derwin Gray

Dr. Derwin Gray is a scholar and pastor who is committed to helping heal the racial divide in the Church. His experiences as a black man, former NFL player, minister, and community leader have positioned him to bring together people across lines of difference. He pastors an intentionally multiethnic church, which he believes represents the Church of Jesus Christ described in Scripture. UrbanFaith sat down with him to talk about his new book How to Heal Our Racial Divide: What the Bible Says and the first Christians knew about racial reconciliation. The interview is above and more information on the book is below.

In his forthcoming book, Dr. Derwin L. Gray walks us through Scripture, showing us the heart of God for racial reconciliation. This book unpacks what it means to live a multiethnic life in light of the gospel.

Derwin L. Gray is the founding and lead pastor of Transformation Church (TC), one of the fastest growing churches in America. TC is a multiethnic, multigenerational, mission-shaped community near Charlotte, NC. Pastor Derwin and his wife, Vicki, have been married since 1992 and have two children: daughter, Presley, and son, Jeremiah. He is the author of Hero: Unleashing God’s Power in a Man’s Heart (2010), Limitless Life: You Are More Than Your Past When God Holds Your Future, (2013), The High-Definition Leader (2015), and The Good Life: What Jesus Teaches About Finding True Happiness (2020).

Texas faith leaders accompany Uvalde community, decry gun culture after school rampage

Texas faith leaders accompany Uvalde community, decry gun culture after school rampage

 

(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. ”

Faith on the ground in Buffalo: Voice Buffalo executive director Denise Walden

Faith on the ground in Buffalo: Voice Buffalo executive director Denise Walden

(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

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.