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.
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.