On Tuesday, May 24, 21 people were killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. We are beginning to receive reports and biographies of these precious lives taken, at least 19 children and two adults, elementary students and teachers. The shooter was an 18-year-old Uvalde resident who also died and needs our prayers for mercy.
The details of this massacre are still forthcoming yet the compounded grief, sadness, and, yes, anger are here in full force. We pray, O God of peace, for those who are grieving and we weep with those who weep. We ask for the grace to respond with faith, hope, and love to meet the challenge before us. Indeed, we must grieve and we cannot fail to take action to change this sad state of affairs.
In this moment, we must address in prayer and action the urgent need for sensible gun control, the increasing tendency to respond to fear with violence, and the deep and increasing alienation due to wide-ranging causes, which seems to be spreading.
Racism is a particularly powerful and persistent manifestation in recent instances of gun violence and we must be sure that we do not permit racial biases and stereotypes to shape accounts and responses to the tragedy in Texas either.
We in Orange were already reeling from the horrific racially motivated murders in Buffalo on May 14, only to be struck in our own community of Laguna Woods by more gun violence the following day, May 15.
52-year-old John Cheng, a physician whose two children attend Santa Margarita High School (where he was remembered during a recent Mass), was at the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church to attend services with his parents and charged the attacker, saving the lives of many others but sadly losing his own. Four others were injured. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime against the Taiwanese people, given notes and comments made by the shooter.
The attack in Buffalo which killed ten more beloved children of God was motivated by explicitly racist and white supremacist ideology, following in the footsteps of previous racially motivated shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, Christchurch, New Zealand, El Paso, Texas, and others.
The Washington Post gave the following descriptions of these dear African American lives lost:
Celestine Chaney, 65, cancer survivor, churchgoer, bingo player;
Roberta Drury, 32, beloved daughter and sister who moved home to help her brother fighting cancer;
Andre Mackniel, 53, who stopped at Tops to buy his 3-year-old son a birthday cake;
Katherine “Kat” Massey, 72, a writer and civil rights and education advocate;
Margus D. Morrison, 52, school bus aide survived by his wife, three children and a stepdaughter;
Heyward Patterson, 67, father and church deacon who fed the homeless and gave rides to neighbors;
Aaron Salter Jr., 55, retired police officer who died trying to stop the gunman;
Geraldine Talley, 62, expert baker and friend to everybody;
Ruth Whitfield, 86, beloved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who was caretaker of her husband;
Pearl Young, 77, who ran the local food pantry and loved singing, dancing and her family.
Common denominators of these two tragedies include racism – whether internationally based conflicts or homegrown and pernicious white nationalism – and guns.
Recently, in Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis warns that “instances of a myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism are on the rise.” He also refers to Pope Saint John XXIII’s “conviction that the arguments for peace are stronger than any calculation of particular interests and confidence in the use of weaponry.” Most recently, Francis expressed his “heart shattered over the massacre at the elementary school in Texas,” offered prayers, and then said: “It is time to say, ‘Enough!’ to the indiscriminate trafficking of guns. Let’s all work to ensure that such tragedies never happen again.”
In denouncing both gun violence and racism, Pope Francis is echoing Pope Saint John Paul II. For example, on the latter, twenty years ago John Paul II said: “Marked by the worrying resurgence of aggressive nationalism, ethnic violence and widespread phenomena of racial discrimination, human dignity has often been seriously threatened. Every upright conscience cannot but decisively condemn any racism, no matter in what heart or place it is found.”
“Unfortunately,” he said, “it emerges in ever new and unexpected ways, offending and degrading the human family. Racism is a sin that constitutes a serious offence against God….To oppose racism we must practice the culture of reciprocal acceptance, recognizing in every man and woman a brother or sister with whom we walk in solidarity and peace” (Angelus, August 26, 2001).
John Paul II was so committed to this end that his Delegation at the United Nations in January of 2002 called for “a clear programme to fight racism,” saying:
“The fight against racism is urgent. It must be explicit and direct. Too often in history, uncritical societies have stood by inactive as new signs of racism raised their head. If we are not alert, hatred and racial intolerance can reappear in any society, no matter how advanced it may consider itself.”
“Such a programme must begin at the level of national legislation and practice… [addressing] in particular the situation of refugees and migrants, who are often victims of discrimination. It must address the situation of indigenous peoples. It must address minority groupings.
“Legislation must be accompanied by education. Education on racial tolerance must be a normal part of the educational programmes for children at all levels. The family, the basic social unit of society, must be the first school of openness and acceptance of others. Government agencies may never justify racial profiling and the mass media must be alert to avoid any type of stereotyping of persons on a racial basis.
“In particular, the Holy See would like to address the question of racism and religious intolerance…”
Notwithstanding forms of intolerance that must be addressed, the Holy See concludes: “Religion, above all, can be a strong force for that individual and collective conversion of hearts, without which hatred, intolerance and exclusion will never be eliminated. The fight against racism requires a concerted international programme. But the fight against racism begins in the heart of each of us, and in the collective historical memory of our communities. The fight against racism requires a personal change of heart. It requires that “healing of memories”, that forgiveness for which Pope John Paul II called in his last Message for the World Day of Peace .”
We each must take up this personal challenge and change of heart and grow our empathy and solidarity with one another. From acts of terror like those in Buffalo, Laguna Woods, or Uvalde to the outrageous rhetoric and reactions on cable news, online, or in state or congressional halls, we are traumatized again and again, especially African American, Latino, and Asian American brothers and sisters.
As Catholics we remember those killed doing the most regular, everyday things, shopping for groceries, talking on the cell phone with family, visiting an establishment in their neighborhood, or going to church, learning in their classrooms, only to be met by the worst forms of violence simply because of what they represent to the twisted ideologies of white supremacy and nationalism or to other forms of numbed indifference.
“Justice for black people,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1969, “will not flow into this society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory…White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.” “True peace,” he said elsewhere, “is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
My heart goes out to my African American, Latino, and Asian American sisters and brothers and my desire is for us as a Church to make a common commitment to denounce racism in all its forms and the proliferation of guns and to work instead in solidarity for justice. This justice is required from the very beginning of life and throughout all of life toward its end and includes the abolition of the death penalty (if murder is wrong, it’s wrong for everyone).
The words of a recent Gospel reading from John come to mind:
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
You heard me tell you,
‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’
If you loved me,
you would rejoice that I am going to the Father;
for the Father is greater than I.
Given challenges in front of us it’s often hard not to be troubled or afraid. Yet we can take comfort in the great cloud of witnesses gone before us in Jesus – for example, the six Americans of African descent with open causes for sainthood – and answer the call to do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).
Venerable Pierre Toussaint,
Servant of God Mary Elizabeth Lange,
Venerable Henriette DeLille,
Servant of God Julia Greeley,
Venerable Augustus Tolton,
Servant of God Thea Bowman,
Pray for us.