In face of unspeakable death, church joins in grief and ‘speaks life’
Not thoughts and prayers, but rather prayers and presence, have marked the United Church of Christ’s response to the racist May 14 killings in Buffalo, N.Y.
Locally, UCC churches have been near the center of grief — physically and spiritually — after a white gunman killed 10 Black people at a neighborhood supermarket.
The UCC’s national officers offered a public prayer of lament the day after the shooting. Leaders from the conference and national settings have visited, too, meeting with residents of the stricken Buffalo neighborhood and offering support.
Ministry of presence
But being present has been the main way the church has been able to help.
As South Central Conference Minister Phil Hodson put it after the equally horrific event just days later in Uvalde, Tex. — the May 24 school killing of 19 students and two teachers — the church has “a role to play in situations like these.”
“When chaos happens and there are no clear answers and lives are lost for no good reason, we are called to help people grieve,” he said. “To help in mourning. To journey with those who suffer.”
In Uvalde, other churches have primarily played that role. The nearest UCC congregation is 83 miles away, in San Antonio. But in Buffalo, New Covenant UCC and Grace UCC are each about two miles from the Tops Friendly Market where the attack occurred. Those churches have joined others providing love and presence to a community in mourning.
‘Could have been me’
The Rev. Traci Blackmon, UCC associate general minister, joined the people of New Covenant in worship on May 22, a week after the shooting. “This church does not currently have an assigned pastor,” she said. “It is small and very committed to its community.”
There she met Helen Lee, 96. “She is the matriarch of New Covenant,” Blackmon said. “She shared with me that she was in Tops the Friday before the massacre at the same time the gunman was there.” Blackmon said Lee told her, “It could have been me, but for some reason he didn’t kill that day.”
News reports say the 18-year-old shooter loitered at the store that Friday, May 13, before being asked to leave because he was bothering customers. He returned the next day, armed with an assault rifle and handguns. He shot 13 people — ages 26 to 80 — killing 10, in an act that Erie County Sheriff John Garcia later described as “pure evil.” Eleven of the victims were Black.
Vigil and memorial
After worship on May 22, Blackmon spent the rest of that day — and the next two — in the community. Across the street from Tops, she spoke at a prayer vigil sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Buffalo, accompanied by the Rev. Gary Ferner, associate conference minister of the UCC’s New York Conference. Also there, among others, was the Rev. Elizabeth Duffy, pastor of Zion UCC, Tonawanda, N.Y., and moderator of the Conference’s Western Association.
Duffy posted a picture of Blackmon on social media, saying: “Rev. Traci Blackmon is in Buffalo and she just spoke the truth: ‘The world is suffering from a lack of love.’ And her charge to us: ‘We must love the hell out of this place!'”
At the site of the vigil was a flower-covered memorial with images of those who died in the shooting. “An entire wall is covered with words written in chalk, expressing love, lament, peace, and a powerful resistance to violence,” Ferner said. He and Blackmon both added messages of love to the memorial.
Together in tragedy
On Monday, Blackmon met with leaders of three UCC churches engaged “in supporting the community through the tragedy.” “Grace UCC is primary in that support,” she said. “They hosted a community barbecue on the Saturday before, and the other two churches, Zion UCC and Pilgrim-St. Luke’s UCC, came over to assist them. It was the first time, according to them, that the churches had worked together.”
At the Monday meeting, “we shared a meal and spent 4-and-a-half hours together processing grief,” Blackmon said. “I committed resources to strengthen their alliance and presence in that community. We ended in prayer and I anointed each of them.”
“Churches from around the Western Association have partnered with Grace UCC’s Pastor Larry Jackson and First Lady Jackson to provide food and resources as the Tops grocery store remains closed,” Ferner said.
“Even as the East Buffalo community experiences an immediate crisis in access to food, the underlying consequences of racist redlining, and the politics and economics of oppression, continue unabated. Resources sent to that working group of churches can be used to address some of the systemic issues, once a focus has been identified.”
New Covenant members will join leaders of Grace, Zion and Pilgrim-St. Luke’s as part of that team. Ferner said people interested in offering support can send an email to Duffy, Zion’s pastor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On May 17, Grace UCC — which Ferner described as a small but “powerful community of faith” — found itself in the middle of a presidential visit. The church is just around the corner from a community center where President Joe Biden spoke. The church hosted Secret Service agents, providing them with food and water.
The following week, Grace hosted a special Wednesday-night community gathering on May 25. The featured speaker, from Charleston, S.C., had lost his sister in the 2015 racist massacre in that city’s Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. A video of the event can be viewed at Grace UCC’s Facebook page.
“I wept a little bit as we were flying in and I knew the burden that so many of y’all have faced this past week,” said South Carolina State Rep. JA Moore. Losing a loved one, such as his sister, Myra Thompson, brings “immense pain, a pain that never leaves you.” But he urged listeners to use that pain as fuel as they resist white supremacy and fight for “justice and liberation and freedom.”
“And I know some days you want to cry and you want to shout,” Moore said. “Shout if you need to. Cry if you want to. But don’t give up. Keep fighting.”
Fighting for life
“So many times these things happen to us,” said Jackson, the Grace pastor, in his remarks at the May 25 service. “And that’s why I want to speak life to you. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to live. I want to live and not die.”
He urged people not to shy away from praying for the community’s own protection “from the evils of this world.” “I am encouraged,” Jackson said, “and I’m going to continue to go forward, to go forward praying for what it is we need to fight for — and that’s for life.”
He ended his benediction with these words: “Speak life, and there will be life.”
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