By: Bishop David Bard
Ten people were killed and three were wounded Saturday, May 14 when a gunman opened fire in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket. Following this mass shooting, which law-enforcement officials are investigating as a racially motivated hate crime, Bishop David Bard issued the following pastoral letter:
Dear Friends in Christ in the United Methodist Churches of Michigan and Minnesota,
I greet you in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the peace and power of the Holy Spirit. I greet you, once again, with a broken heart and a wounded spirit.
This past weekend was filled with personal joy and national heartache. On Sunday, I had the joy and privilege of baptizing our granddaughter, Eleonora, and preaching the sermon at the church where I was last appointed a pastor, First United Methodist Church in Duluth, Minnesota. I framed my sermon as a letter, “Dear Ellie,” in which I tried to share what baptism and Christian faith mean to me and I hope will mean to her. In that sermon, I preached: “There is a lot in the world that could make you think that you will do better if you are other than kind, compassionate, and curious. When you look at the history of humanity, you may be tempted to think that love is not really all that powerful, that we make very little difference for good in the world. You may be tempted to focus narrowly, get what you can, limit your love, keep hope small. I understand, because I have struggled with this, too. It takes some faith and courage to continue to believe in the power of love. Be that person of faith and courage and hope and creativity and love.”
The day prior to that baptism and sermon, heartbreaking news came from Buffalo, New York. An 18-year-old young man, dressed in military-style protective gear, wearing a helmet with a camera, and carrying a military-style assault rifle (an AR-15 clone) arrived at a grocery store in a predominantly Black section of town and began shooting. This young man drove approximately 200 miles to carry out his killing. The gun he used was purchased legally, even though the shooter was taken for a mental health evaluation last spring after writing for a high school assignment that he planned to commit a murder-suicide. Ten people are dead, and more are injured. The gunman posted a racist document online as “justification” for shooting Black people. It was filled with hatred grounded in conspiratorial replacement theory.
On the day of Ellie’s baptism, at a Taiwanese-American Presbyterian Church, a gunman opened fire, killing one and wounding five others. The man was motivated by a hatred for Taiwanese people though he, himself, was born in Taiwan.
There was other significant violence over the weekend. In Ohio, an 8-year-old was shot as two groups of women fought in a public park. In Milwaukee, three separate shootings occurred near the site of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball game. Two people were killed at a Houston flea market.
It takes some faith and courage to continue to believe in the power of love.
Our country has a violence problem. On average, 321 people are shot each day in the United States. This weekend was particularly horrific, but not entirely atypical.
We have mental health concerns in this country. Mental health issues among children and adolescents are rising. In 2019, 13 percent of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode, representing a 60 percent increase since 2007. Suicide rates for children, youth, and young adults ages 10 to 24, stable from 2000 to 2007, had gone up nearly 60 percent by 2018.
Our country continues to have problems with racial hatred. We have a difficult history that we fail to engage deeply, with courage and creativity. We often work hard to avoid confronting this history.
In Buffalo on Saturday, May 14, all three crises overlapped. Ten people are dead. African-Americans, historic victims of violence in this country, are traumatized. A simple trip to the grocery store ended in death for 10 people.
Our hearts go out to all those who grieve, particularly in Buffalo. Our prayers are extended to families and communities who mourn. May the promise of Jesus in the beatitudes be theirs: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Difficult prayers need to be prayed for the family of the Buffalo shooter. They mourn, too. Our prayers must be accompanied by calls for accountability for that gunman.
We need to pray for our nation, pray that we will look in the mirror and ask ourselves hard questions about who we are and who we want to be. Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, Jr. wrote a couple of days ago: “We face a choice as to what kind of country this will be. If you sit quietly, you have made your choice.” While I wish I did not have to write again about race and violence, I am not willing to sit quietly. Nor should any who follow Jesus be content to sit quietly.
Beyond prayers, I invite us to engage other beatitudes: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
What might it mean to hunger and thirst for righteousness after Buffalo? What might it mean to be peacemakers? Prayers of mourning and yearning and hungering for better—yes. And we need to continue to have the difficult conversations about race and hatred in this country. Avoiding those conversations only allows the deep infection of racialized thinking and its attendant hatreds and conspiracies to fester in our collective soul. And can we have a conversation about guns in this country? Might we have this conversation as people of faith? The number of guns manufactured in the United States has tripled since 2000. There are now an estimated 400 million guns owned in this country. What does responsible gun ownership look like? What role might society have in keeping guns away from those whose precarious mental health opens them to the kind of hate-filled racialized thinking that is too easily accessible online, so we might avoid killings in stores and parking lots and places of worship?
We mourn with those who mourn, trusting that the comforting love of God will arrive. May we also seek the blessing of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and of the peacemakers. It takes some faith and courage to continue to believe in the power of love. Be that person of faith and courage and hope and creativity and love, in the name of Jesus.
Bishop David A. Bard
Interim Bishop, Minnesota Conference
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church