An untitled sermon in response to the Buffalo massacre, 15 May 22 Leaf Seligman
I had another sermon prepared. I sent it to Traceymay to vet. She texted back, “I read your sermon. It’s beautiful. Please don’t mess with it.” But that was May 7. Last night when I went to bed, unraveled by the news of yesterday’s mass shooting at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, I knew I could not preach it today. Even the name of the market is aspirational. In a dream, one of you said to me, “don’t change the sermon. You can mention the shooting in a prayer, but you are just here to be like Traceymay.” I can only hope, Friends, that Traceymay and all of you understand why I rose uncharacteristically early to write a sermon different than the one I was prepared to preach.
To proceed on with a Sunday service as if thirteen people were not just gunned down, hunted, in the aisles of a grocery store because they were Black, would be to engage in a level of disrespect I cannot countenance. Something turned in me last night as I read the latest updates.
Da’shaun Harrison, editor-at-large, Scalawag, an online southern journal, writes:
i understand Grief to be an inescapable part of life. we all experience loss, in one iteration or another, that requires us to grieve the life lived, space shared, or time lost. however, when we individualize loss, we remove the context under which Grief is often also experienced genealogically—which is to say that Grief, on a structural level, is also a communal experience. said differently, because Grief encompasses the loss of time and space, relegating or assigning grief to an individual experience fails to acknowledge the long life of pain, trauma, and therefore Grief itself.
what i am seeking to clarify on our understanding of grief is that total healing is not possible for Black folks precisely because we exist as the underbelly of humanity and are therefore always grieving, as we live in Grief. if we accept that to be healed means to have grieved, as opposed to actively grieving, then there is no way for Black folks to ever be healed. i don’t believe complete healing is possible for Black folks in an antiblack world; in a world wherein we are experiencing “the afterlife of slavery,” as Saidya Hartman names it.
Sisters, brothers, siblings, we gather on this Sunday morning in what Martin Luther King Jr. called the most segregated hour on earth and I cannot help but imagine in every predominantly Black church across the country, there is some form of keening, some form of gnashing of teeth. Great wails to the heavens, and a kinesthetic experience of terror in the body most of us here do not know.
Yesterday’s shooter—note even that phrase—yesterday’s, to distinguish it from the mass shooting the day before in Milwaukee where 17 were injured, and the day before that, in Hot Springs National Park, where one person died and four were injured; or May 11th, when there were four shootings in four different cities: Paterson, NJ, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Chicago, resulting in two deaths and 15 injuries—or put another way, out of the last 14 days, there were mass shootings on ten of those days—yesterday’s shooter, an eighteen year old white male, filmed his rampage with a go-pro-camera affixed to his battle helmet, for he was waging war. He modeled his massacre on the 2015 carnage at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charlestown, the mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Walmart massacre in Texas both in 2019.
He had been “’passively preparing’ for years and in January ‘actually got serious’, according to the manifesto’ praising Dylan Roof, whose hunting grounds was the Wednesday evening bible study of an historically Black church.
Each time we are confronted, in the relative safety of our bodies, with another horrific story like this, we wonder how a person becomes capable of carrying out this meticulously planned and practiced attack. Lately, it does not take much to imagine given that my spam folder is full of emails from “National Gun News,” “Concealed Rights,” and “Outdoor Survival Nation” and “Top Gun Accessories” and I am a pacifist abolitionist.
Everywhere we turn, we hear and see more about racial hatred, people armed to the teeth, a pernicious xenophobia and nativism sure to make Jesus weep. If the peacemakers are blessed, and called the “children of God,” who is everyone else?
I know it is a lovely spring morning and though the sermon I had prepared spoke of my friend Morgan in prison and his plight, and my friend Obie, down on death row in Texas, and the peace cranes he sent, the sermon exalted praise, to accompany the lectionary psalm for today, 148. And as much as I want to conjure the scent and delicate hues of the flowering trees and tell you of the fragrant lilacs whose perfume filled the space in front of the statehouse where I went yesterday to rally for reproductive rights, I cannot turn from the families grieving today, and as Da’Shaun Harrison reminds us, the generations of Black folks raised by grief as if it were the only teat offered in this not-mother-land.
In 2018, I attended a restorative justice conference hosted by the Vermont Law School wherein one of the keynote speakers, Adam Foss, a Black prosecutor with dreadlocks flowing down his back said, “I am an endangered species in this country.” The precision of the phrase penetrates me still. So it is on this Sunday morning when most of us have the great good fortune to leave this sanctuary and spill into our days, I am asking you to pause with me for a just a while, long enough to hold the terror of what we have become in our bodies.
And now I will invite you to inhabit with me the possibility of transformation as I read to you from an essay I received from my friend and teacher Obie Weathers. He begins with a haiku.
kite string of mantra
snapped by incoming missile
didn’t silence omm
This haiku considers the devastation of the war in Ukraine and all wars everywhere but especially those within us.
I know how deadly those internal wars are, and I have come to view them as the sole source of the external wars—both large and small.
How those wars get started within us is another matter. For me it began with my parents who unfortunately didn’t have the knowledge or resources to understand my young mind and its struggles. Somehow they didn’t think to ask how I was after watching my father and his friend electrocuted with 13,000 volts. I was three years old at the time. I witnessed my hero unconscious and frothing at the mouth as he and his friend lie prone in the green grass of our backyard. Citizen Band radio enthusiasts, they were installing an antenna when it accidently made contact with powerlines and I was left wandering the yard alone and sobbing without protection from the downed live wire.
Fortunately he and his friend survived, but sadly when a school official suggested I be seen by a psychologist, Dad vetoed the idea. Instead he insisted Mom “treat” my inability to stay seated and on task in school with “belt” therapy.
Then came my sister transgressing my young body’s boundaries in a playful though sexually inappropriate and harmful manner. Like a tragic game of tag, she was passing on to me what had been passed to her by our cousin.…
The school had identified me as “at-risk” but only seemed willing to see me as the threat they needed to neutralize in order to protect me. How they hoped to save me without throwing the baby out with the bath water is beyond me. Like the despicable edict directed at our Indigenous siblings: Kill the Indian to save the man, breaking my spirit was the mandate. Not nurturing. Not teaching me how to ride it into a beautiful future. So when I was shuffled on to high school, my soul had been hollowed out and a war theater set.
Where the blue skies of possibility should have been there were dark clouds of despair looming over my high school years.…
No, there weren’t any therapists anywhere within reach. Just the chemical agents which I hurled repeatedly into my insides, unaware that violence begets violence ad infinitum. Nor were there any trauma or grief counselors when I was nearly shot to death once. And a second time in an incident where my schoolmates succeeded in shooting two of my dear friends, taking one away from us forever.
So at the tender age of eighteen, I picked up a pistol and set off to rob my neighbors, the war within spilling out of me as I blundered my way through an imitation of how I saw a robbery done on TV. Am I passing the buck to Hollywood for this grotesque grasping to fund my addiction, my inner war? No. The precious lifeblood of my neighbors’ bodies forever stains my hands. And these crimson hands have served as a reminder these last twenty-one years on death row for why we have to make peace within ourselves, and why we must support another in making peace within if peace is ever to have a chance.
It may seem like a naïve proposition but haven’t we tried tanks, nukes, wars on drugs and executions? I tried bombing myself with bong hit after bong hit and still, I recklessly harmed the very people I should have respected On the twenty-first of April this year, Texas carried out its 574th execution when it put to death Carl Bunton, a man two years shy of his eightieth birthday. In his execution I see the war that used to rage within me, that once spilled violently out of me, being carried forward by my state. And yet in the peace that I have waged within me, that healed my hurt, I see the blue skies of possibility for my state. And for the day when there are no more execution dates.
Obie sent me these cranes. My room is filled with Obie’s peace cranes. I do not know if the young man who pled not guilty yesterday will find the capacity to transform. I do not know if the generations of Black folks living in the “afterlife of slavery” will ever be able to completely heal. I know only that our collective human healing is inextricably bound and if we do not heal ourselves, there is little hope that the weapons of war forged by racism will transform into ploughshares that sow peace.