(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. ”
No one can deny that our nation is angry, hurt and frustrated due to the senseless violence that continues to plague us; however, the way we address today’s issues is absolutely critical, particularly for us as Christians. Here are a few suggestions on how we can respond to the violence and pain through active faith.
Pray in unity.
Now, more than ever, the church is commanded to pray in unity. In Matthew 18, Jesus emphasizes the importance of collective spirituality by saying, “If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.” Yes, times are tough and you may find it difficult, but praying together not only obeys these words of Christ, but also serves as a powerful tool of encouragement and reminds us that we are not alone in the struggle. Besides, Christianity is a communal faith, and historically, many African and African-influenced cultures have always valued collective spirituality. Most importantly, we must remember that we serve a God who answers prayer, not always in the ways we expect, but always effective according to His will!
Educate yourself and others.
Hosea 4:6 declares, “For my people perish for lack of knowledge.” In order to actively address today’s issues, it is absolutely critical that we are prepared, both spiritually and intellectually. Take the time to educate yourself on the laws, procedures and government systems that affect both you and your family. However, it is just as important to equip yourself with Scriptures that will assist you in learning strategies that respect government while actively advocating against injustice and violence. Throughout the Bible, Jesus teaches us the importance of knowing your rights as both citizens of your home country and citizens of God’s kingdom. (Matthew 22:15-22, Luke 4:38-53, Mark 3:1-6) It is imperative that you know your rights in order to prevent them from being violated.
Be persistent and hopeful in seeking justice.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable that is not often shared among members of the Church. It is a parable about a persistent woman who goes to a judge to receive justice. Although he is not righteous, the judge gives the woman justice because of her persistence. As Christians, will we have enough faith to be persistent and seek God, even when dealing with a broken and unrighteous government?
The call to action here is clear. Keep seeking justice, even in a broken system, because the persistence will eventually bring about change.
Love your neighbor.
In the midst of all that is going on, this is the key. We have to choose to love our neighbors the way God loves (Matthew 22:38-39). We must love because we have been shown love, even when it is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Showing acts of love to our neighbors, particularly to those who historically have not always shown love in return, will begin to build the bridges across the ravines of fear that divide our nation and lead to the violence in the first place.
It is important to see here that love covers a multitude of sins, the sins that separate us from one another and God. Fear drives a lot of the sin of violence in this nation. It is the fear that we will keep killing one another, fear that things will not change, fear between races, and fear within communities. However, it is perfect love that casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Share your thoughts on the recent violence and your plan of action as a Christian in today’s society below.
The nightmare never goes away.
Almost nine months have passed since Amber Guyger, an off-duty Dallas police officer still in uniform, entered Botham Shem Jean’s fourth-floor apartment and opened fire, killing the beloved song leader and Bible class teacher as he prepared to watch a football game on TV.
Still, the grief and the heartache never stray far from Bertrum and Allison Jean, parents of the 26-year-old accountant who left his native St. Lucia — a small island in the Caribbean — to attend Harding University in Searcy, Ark., and later worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Dallas.
Botham Shem Jean sings at the Dallas West Church of Christ in September 2017. Photo by Namon Pope
The desire to see their son, to touch his smiling face, to hear his beautiful voice sing praises to Jesus once again grips the Jeans all the more during trips to this Texas city, where Botham Jean’s life ended suddenly on a Thursday night in September.
“For me, every day it’s going to be on my mind, especially as we are here in Dallas,” said Bertrum Jean, who traveled with his wife to attend the recent Dallas Racial Unity Leadership Summit, hosted by the Dallas West Church of Christ — Botham Jean’s home congregation — and sponsored by the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action at Abilene Christian University in Texas.
“It’s as if it just happened,” the father said of his son’s death. “That’s how I feel.”
For Allison Jean, occasions such as the racial unity summit — dedicated in Botham Jean’s memory — and a simultaneous mission trip by Harding students to St. Lucia make her proud of the difference her son made in his short life.
“I see his work in all of this,” said the mother, wearing a #BeLikeBo T-shirt during an interview at the Dallas West church.
“It’s like a roller coaster,” she added. “There are days when I feel that God has taken him for a reason, and I get comfort that he’s with the Lord. Then there are days when I miss his physical presence, and I miss his telephone conversations.”
Months after Botham Jean’s death, trauma strikes his parents in unexpected ways.
While in Dallas, they needed to obtain medical records for an insurer. At Baylor Medical Center, where their son was taken after the shooting, they learned he initially was identified as a John Doe.
“That hurts because Botham was not a John Doe,” Allison Jean said. “He did so much, and he was so affable and always so upbeat in everything. He didn’t deserve to die.
“I know there’s a time to live and a time to die,” she added, referring to Ecclesiastes 3, “but certainly not in the way he did. I feel a wicked act was inflicted upon him right in his own home. That, for me, is the most hurtful part of it.”
Mugshots of Amber Guyger in 2018. Public records photo
WFAA-TV in Dallas recently obtained and broadcast a recording of Guyger’s 911 call from Botham Jean’s apartment.
Guyger has said she mistakenly parked on the fourth floor instead of the third floor, where she lived directly below Botham Jean’s residence. She said she confused his place with her own and thought he was a burglar.
On the 911 tape, Guyger repeatedly insists that “I thought it was my apartment” and voices concern that “I’m going to lose my job.”
Three days after the shooting, police charged Guyger with manslaughter. Later, she was fired and indicted by a grand jury on an upgraded murder charge. Her trial is set for September, a year after Botham Jean’s death.
“That was very, very, very hard,” Allison Jean said of the 911 recording.
“Listening to it, it sparked some anger within me because I’m not hearing the dispatcher pay much attention to him,” the mother added. “I didn’t hear the dispatcher ask about his condition, whether he was breathing, whether he was responsive. … And I’m wondering whether it was because it was a police-involved shooting that the victim didn’t matter.”
Allison Jean, a former top government official in St. Lucia, said she believes the tape was leaked in an effort to gain sympathy for Guyger.
At the Dallas Racial Unity Leadership Summit, an attendee wears a “Justice for Bo!” shirt. Photo courtesy of ACU’s Carl Spain Center
“I think it’s wrong,” she said.
For many, “Justice for Bo!” has become a rallying cry seen on T-shirts and social media hashtags.
“In addition to grieving his loss, I’m consumed with ensuring he gets justice,” Allison Jean said. “I read all the news articles that bear his name. I’m in touch with the attorneys from the DA’s office to find out about progress from the case.”
The family filed a civil lawsuit in federal court, arguing that the city and Dallas police “failed to implement and enforce such policies, practices and procedure for the DPD that respected (Botham) Jean’s constitutional rights.”
But lately, especially after a right-wing radio host characterized her as a scheming mom looking to get rich off her son’s death, the fight has made her weary, Allison Jean said.
In a Twitter post, family attorney Lee Merritt condemned the shock jock’s statement as “dangerous, defamatory and uniquely evil.”
“Right now, since I came to Dallas, I’ve just been thinking about whether I should really fight for justice,” Allison Jean said. “I know the one just God is the one whom I serve. So I keep thinking, ‘Should I just leave everything up to him?’”
Asked what justice would look like, she replied, “I thought justice would mean some punishment to the person who inflicted harm (on Botham Jean). But right now, since I realize we’re dealing with principalities and powers — we’re dealing with a secular world and not only the spiritual that we believe in — I’ll just leave it up to the Father.”
For his part, Bertrum Jean said he knows “nothing could bring Botham back to me.” No outcome in a criminal or civil court will change the fact that his son died.
Allison and Bertrum Jean, parents of Botham Jean, reflect on the Christian Acappella Music Awards paying tribute to their slain son after his death. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.
“All my mind is on is, I want to see him again,” the father said, his voice choked with emotion. “I know he’s in a place where he should be, with the Lord. I want to be in heaven with him.
“Honestly, she’s the last person on my mind,” the father said of Guyger. “I don’t mind seeing her, and I have no hatred for her. Everybody who knows me, I’m about love.”
Whatever happens in the justice system, Bertrum Jean said, he’ll leave it in the Lord’s hands.
“Honestly, they could give her 100 years in prison, and I would take no pleasure,” he said. “Until I could see my Botham again, I will not be happy.”
Focus on positive change
The four-day racial unity summit brought the family — Bertrum Jean, Allison Jean, older sister Allisa Charles-Findley and younger brother Brandt Jean — to Dallas.
Bertrum and Allison Jean address the Dallas Racial Unity Leadership Summit at the Dallas West Church of Christ. Photo courtesy of ACU’s Carl Spain Center
They sat close to the front as Jerry Taylor, founding director of ACU’s Carl Spain Center, welcomed conference attendees. About 350 Christians from across the nation registered for the summit.
“Our presence here … speaks to our commitment to keeping the beautiful life and the horrific death of our beloved Botham Shem Jean alive,” Taylor said. “We will not suffer memory loss when it comes to recognizing the great tragedy of what the Jean family lost, what Dallas West lost, what the city of Dallas lost and what the world lost when Botham innocently lost his life.”
Dallas West minister and elder Sammie Berry, described by Botham Jean’s parents as his “Texas father,” told the crowd the slain Christian “was an outstanding young man with a bright future.”
“While he lived, he let his light shine on all of those who came near him,” Berry said. “So we’re here to honor him, but we’re also here to bring about some positive change.”
Allison Jean said of the summit: “Anything that will promote what Botham stood for, I fully support it. Racial unity is one of the things that Botham really tried to do. In fact, I don’t think he even recognized race because he was always with everyone. He blended very well at Harding, which is predominantly white.”
A mission team from Harding with the Jean family and other St. Lucia church members during a trip several years ago. Photo courtesy of Todd and Debbie Gentry
At the same time as the Dallas event, a dozen-person mission team from Harding landed in St. Lucia.
That island nation of 180,000 people is where Botham Jean dreamed of winning souls to Jesus and running for prime minister one day.
Harding teams led by Todd and Debbie Gentry, college and outreach ministers for the College Church of Christ in Searcy, began annual trips to St. Lucia in 2013.
At the time, Botham Jean worked as a student intern for the campus ministry. The Gros-Islet Church of Christ, where Bertrum Jean serves as a part-time preacher, was a new church plant on the island’s north end.
“We spent hours discussing the possibilities of how a team of Harding students could help grow and encourage those followers,” said Debbie Gentry, who with her husband became Botham Jean’s “Arkansas parents.”
The shirt worn by Harding mission team members on a recent trip to St. Lucia. Photo courtesy of Todd and Debbie Gentry
On the latest trip, students spent four days in a Gros-Islet elementary school, teaching health and wellness, social studies and religion. That school is the same one where the original mission team coordinated a day camp that Botham Jean helped arrange.
“Our relationship not only with this school but with the ministry of education in St. Lucia has been cultivated,” Debbie Gentry said. “We have been invited to teach in all the schools in the island.
“It is amazing how free we were to talk about God and our faith,” she added. “We sang religious songs freely and prayed in all the classrooms. In all subjects, we were encouraged to speak about our faith in Jesus Christ.”
Nonetheless, the trip was difficult for all who knew Botham Jean, she said: “This year, we are walking with the entire church through grief and healing. Our hearts are broken over the tragic death of our dear friend and brother. Without a doubt, we have felt Botham’s absence in a big way.”
But just as Botham Jean “served because he loved God with all his heart, soul and mind,” she said, the Harding team did the same — knowing that he would be pleased.
The family has established the Botham Jean Foundation, with his sister serving as president, to keep his memory alive and serve vulnerable communities in the U.S. and St. Lucia.
Allison Jean, right, mother of shooting victim Botham Shem Jean, hugs a mourner after a prayer vigil Sept. 8, 2018, at the Dallas West Church of Christ. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.
On Sept. 6 — the anniversary of his death — the foundation plans a “Be Like Bo” Day that will feature the launch of a mentorship program.
“It’s a hard day, but we want to change it and bring good out of it,” said Charles-Findley, a member of the Kings Church of Christ in Brooklyn, N.Y.
After the racial unity summit, Bertrum and Allison Jean flew home to St. Lucia to join the Harding group.
Even before returning to the island, though, they braced themselves for the torment that they’d experience there.
St. Lucia, like Dallas, stirs so many memories, so much anguish.
“I miss him being there, just going to the various homes that he visited,” Bertrum Jean said of past St. Lucia mission efforts. “It breaks my heart that he won’t be there for that work.”
The nightmare never goes away.
(Bobby Ross Jr. writes for The Christian Chronicle, where this story first appeared. The original version of this story can be found here.)