Ruth Whitfield was headed home after visiting her husband of 68 years at a nursing home. Can you imagine what the two of them talked about that day – so many memories!
On the way back, the 86-year-old woman stopped at a grocery store in her Buffalo neighborhood.
Andre Mackneil was there, too, picking up a cake for his son’s third birthday celebration. What a wonderful day for that family, right?
Katherine Massey, a 72-year-old former writer for the Buffalo News, also was getting groceries. Nearby was Pearl Young, 77, who ran a food pantry in the predominantly Black neighborhood for 25 years.
Pearl embodied the gospel message of feeding the hungry and caring for the poor. She was Jesus incarnate.
She was about to be gunned down.
In another aisle was great-grandmother and cancer survivor Celestine Chaney, 65, shopping with her 74-year-old sister. Also in the store: 62-year-old Geraldine Talley, 32-year-old Roberta Drury, and 52-year-old Margus Morrison.
Watching over them was Aaron Salter, 55, a retired Buffalo police officer working as a security guard.
Making trips between store and the parking lot was church deacon Heyward Patterson, 67, who helped people board a shuttle for those without transportation. Earlier, he fed people at a soup kitchen.
Wonderful, beautiful, inspiring people. People of deep faith. People of great love. People of such decency and goodness and kindness. People who made an impact on many lives and their community.
The kind of people our faith celebrates. The kind of people who remind us what we can be. The kind of role models we should tell our children to emulate.
In minutes, all were shot dead by Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old white man who perceived all of them as a threat because of the color of their skin.
He, too, was a victim of the poison offered so readily and convincingly by so many in our society – people in politics, media, and culture-war religion. Another life ruined by the flames of hate devouring our society.
Just the latest.
In every generation, opportunists fan the flames of hate until they’re white-hot. When hate is acted out, we focus on the weapons involved, and rightly so; America is uniquely defined by guns and the carnage they produce daily.
But our attention can’t stop there. It needs to go deeper. It must start with identifying and challenging the hate that sows fear and impregnates violence throughout our communities.
Choosing love over hate
We must push back against the hate that tells people to fear anyone who is different. The hate that urges people to arm themselves because “those people” are dangerous – those Black people, those Jewish people, those Muslim people, those gay people, those trans people, those Asian people, those Mexican people, those immigrant people, those doctors and teachers and scientists, and on and on.
Hate that says “those people” are out to get you, replace you, destroy your way of life. You must protect yourself. Stop them. Keep them away. Get them before they get you.
Hate that also says: Don’t get to know any of those people we’ve labeled a threat. Don’t listen to the stories of a long-married couple or a man picking up a child’s birthday cake – you know, people just like you.
Don’t hear their stories because you might realize you’re being told lies about them. Don’t let your children learn about any of this because they might start seeing through the lies, too.
Keep the lies and the lines in place. Feed the fear. Fan the hate.
At church last Sunday, we shared the stories of those gunned down in Buffalo. We mustn’t forget their stories, nor the hate that told so many lies about them.
But remembering them isn’t enough.
Our society is awash in people peddling hate for personal gain. They pollute our politics, our airwaves, our social media, and yes, even many pulpits with their us-against-them poison that produces these atrocities.
Stopping the poison
We mustn’t ignore the hate being circulated. We can’t be silent about the evil being promulgated. Nor can our response be limited to words alone.
We need to lovingly and persistently call out those who inject this poison into our world. Turn them off. Vote them out. Hold them responsible when their inciteful words have the intended effect.
Our faith calls on us to not only reject the ideology of hate but to work collaboratively to protect all God’s children and build communities where all are treated equally as God’s beloved.
Places where the divine image is seen in all, not only a select few. Where loving lives are celebrated, not desecrated. Where the peddlers of poison are turned off and turned away.
Where hope-filled, faith-filled and love-filled people — like those at the supermarket — partner with God and put their lives into in the redemptive work of replacing hate with love.
(Information about the shooting victims comes from The Associated Press and media outlets in Buffalo.)