(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) — 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.”
(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.”
President Barack Obama offered words of comfort to the people of Newtown, Connecticut, during a vigil held at Newton High School on Sunday night. “All across this land of ours, we have wept with you. … Newtown, you are not alone,” he said.
The president added that he’ll use “whatever power” he has to prevent “more tragedies like” what happened Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, where 26 were killed in a mass school shooting before the gunman killed himself.
“No set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society,” the president said. “But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”
See the full speech below.
“Thank you, Governor. To all the families, first responders, to the community of Newtown, clergy, guests – Scripture tells us: ‘…do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away…inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.’ “We gather here in memory of 20 beautiful children and six remarkable adults. They lost their lives in a school that could have been any school; in a quiet town full of good and decent people that could be any town in America. “Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief; that our world too has been torn apart; that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you, we’ve pulled our children tight. And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide; whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it. Newtown – you are not alone. “As these difficult days have unfolded, you’ve also inspired us with stories of strength and resolve and sacrifice. We know that when danger arrived in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school’s staff did not flinch, they did not hesitate. Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel Davino and Anne Marie Murphy – they responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances – with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care. We know that there were other teachers who barricaded themselves inside classrooms, and kept steady through it all, and reassured their students by saying ‘wait for the good guys, they’re coming’; ‘show me your smile.’ “And we know that good guys came. The first responders who raced to the scene, helping to guide those in harm’s way to safety, and comfort those in need, holding at bay their own shock and trauma because they had a job to do, and others needed them more.
“And then there were the scenes of the school children, helping one another, holding each other, dutifully following instructions in the way that young children sometimes do. One child even tried to encourage a grown-up by saying, ‘I know karate, so it’s OK. I’ll lead the way out.’
“As a community, you’ve inspired us, Newtown. In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you’ve looked out for each other, and you’ve cared for one another, and you’ve loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered. And with time, and God’s grace, that love will see you through. “But we, as a nation, we are left with some hard questions. Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around. With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves – our child – is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice. And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet, we also know that with that child’s very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us; that we won’t – that we can’t always be there for them. They’ll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments. And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.
“And we know we can’t do this by ourselves. It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize, no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself. That this job of keeping our children safe, and teaching them well, is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community, and the help of a nation. And in that way, we come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we’re all parents; that they’re all our children.
“This is our first task – caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.
“And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children – all of them – safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? “I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change. “Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we’ve hugged survivors. The fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America – victims whose – much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law – no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. “But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that – then surely we have an obligation to try.
“In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens – from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators – in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom? “All the world’s religions – so many of them represented here today – start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose? We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain; that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame, or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that no matter how good our intentions, we will all stumble sometimes, in some way. We will make mistakes, we will experience hardships. And even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.
“There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have – for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace – that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger – we know that’s what matters. We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.
“That’s what we can be sure of. And that’s what you, the people of Newtown, have reminded us. That’s how you’ve inspired us. You remind us what matters. And that’s what should drive us forward in everything we do, for as long as God sees fit to keep us on this Earth. “’Let the little children come to me,’ Jesus said, ‘and do not hinder them – for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ “Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Allison.
“God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory. “May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in His heavenly place. May He grace those we still have with His holy comfort. And may He bless and watch over this community, and the United States of America.”
TWO SIDES OF JUSTICE: Public opinion in the Trayvon Martin-Geroge Zimmerman case has tended to split along racial lines, and it's doubtful some questions will ever be answered. (Photos: Wikipedia)
With the announcement of new details about events leading up to the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, at least three things are clear: we likely will never know exactly what happened that evening of Feb. 26 in Sanford, Florida; the situation could’ve been avoided had Zimmerman followed the 911 operator’s instructions and stayed in his vehicle; Martin and Zimmerman were both flawed human beings like the rest of us.
Yesterday, as prosecutors released more than 200 pages of photos and eyewitness accounts showing Zimmerman had wounds to his face and the back of his head, the national debate about the case (which consistently appears to be divided sharply along racial lines), was reignited. While supporters of Zimmerman and his claim of “self-defense” see the new evidence as proof of his innocence, others view it as a mixed bag that doesn’t necessarily bolster his defense. The lead detective in the case against Zimmerman said he believes Zimmerman initiated the fight by getting out of his car to confront Martin, and that he should be charged with manslaughter.
Further complicating the public debate was the release of details from an autopsy report that showed Martin had traces of THC, which is from marijuana, in his blood and urine. A scan of comments around the blogosphere and social media reveal that, in the minds of some, this information reinforced the assumption that Martin was complicit in triggering the incident that led to his death, though one expert pointed out that the amount of THC found in Martin’s blood was “so low that it may have been ingested days earlier and played no role in Martin’s behavior.” Nevertheless, for many it added weight to the argument that Martin was not the young, angelic kid that they feel the media painted him to be.
In addition to this new information, new photos of George Zimmerman were released showing the 28-year-old soon after the incident with Martin. The images offer a clear picture of his alleged injuries. Plus, news outlets released the surveillance video of Trayvon Martin at the Sanford 7-11 store, purchasing the iced tea and Skittles that he carried when he crossed paths with Zimmerman several minutes later.
In a way, the public debate over the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case has become a mirror for seeing our nation’s ongoing racial tensions, with many from the White community predictably aligning with Zimmerman and many from the Black and non-White communities siding with Martin’s family. Though there are certainly Whites who side with Martin and Blacks who side with Zimmerman, the anecdotal evidence for a stereotypical racial split is incontrovertible. In fact, this is not strictly an issue of race, but of justice. Nevertheless, in this era of the first Black president, tensions are already high when it comes to race. These are tensions that were heightened by partisan politics during the 2008 presidential campaign and subsequent election of Barack Obama, and that continue to flare whenever a new racial controversy erupts. It proves we have a long way to go in bridging our country’s racial and cultural divides.
What Do You Think?
Does the release of this new information make you more inclined to believe one party’s side of the story? Does the autopsy’s revelation that Martin had THC in his system affect your view of the teen’s role in the confrontation? What can we do as a nation to turn this tragic episode into something constructive?