As Jesus prepared the disciples for his Ascension, he told them: “Now I am going to the one who sent me…but because I tell you this, grief has filled your hearts.”
Two weeks ago, 11 seniors and I had the opportunity to travel to Buffalo for a service immersion trip. We planned to work at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy and Response to Love Center, two kitchens serving the poorest in East Buffalo. The itinerary was jam-packed. The students made and delivered thousands of sandwiches, attended daily mass, learned about the vicious cycles of poverty on the East Side, and reflected nightly on the graces & challenges of their experiences throughout the day.
Although not planned this way, we arrived at the same time as Joe and Jill Biden, who were coming to console the people of Buffalo because grief had filled their hearts. On Saturday, May 14, an 18-year-old gunman methodically shot and killed ten black people at a Tops Supermarket on the East Side – one of the deadliest racist attacks in recent American history.
Our group heard a lot from faith & justice leaders in Buffalo about the shooting. We heard from one of the co-founders of St. Luke’s Mission, whose daughter was shot in the head but miraculously survived without brain damage or severe injury.
We heard from a priest who was on site that Saturday afternoon to bless the bodies, all covered in tarps, laid out throughout the supermarket.
We also heard from Fr. Fred Betti, SJ, a Jesuit and long-time advocate for the poor in East Buffalo, who informed us how common shootings of this gravity come about in this part of the city.
Grief filled our hearts.
Yet the most extraordinary experience for me happened when we visited that Tops market where the shooting occurred to pay our respects. Given the stories we heard, I suspected a somber visit, feeling the despair and weight of the tragedy.
What we saw, though, was more than grief and sorrow. Community members set up large tents for barbecue and Tops groceries donations, a DJ blasted upbeat music, and hundreds of people gathered to advocate for the lives lost and prevent such tragedies in the future. People from all over thanked us for traveling from Rochester to support them. Hundreds of beautiful bouquets decorated street signs and trees by the grocery store. Chalk graffiti covered 100 feet of a wall by the neighboring store with messages of prayer, support, and grief along with the photos of those who were killed. In giant letters across this commemorative wall, “STOP KILLING US” spoke most loudly, peppered with encouraging messages around it, such as “Still we Rise,” “Until we meet again,” and “Love is stronger than hate.”
We stepped away from the commotion to pray in front of the empty parking lot and spent a quiet moment remembering those lost in the tragedy. The stillness of this moment brought chills to my skin as the silence spoke louder than the music blaring and clamoring from crowds gathered beside us. This quiet minute reminded us we would no longer hear the voices of those who lost their lives. Yet, we also felt the spirit of their presence still with us.
To conclude our moment of silent prayer, we began to say an Our Father in front of the parking lot. Then, seeing each of us form a circle and hold hands, a reverend from the local baptist church walked over to join in prayer, emotionally emphasizing his words – “THY kingdom COME, THY will be done” and “DELIVER us from evil.” Indeed, that sunny Thursday afternoon just four days after the tragedy, we saw God’s kingdom come to this community, delivering it from the evil of this tragic shooting.
In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius invites the retreatant to imagine the three Divine Persons of the Trinity looking over the whole world, saying, “Let us work the redemption of the whole human race; let us respond to the groaning of all creation.” Between these moments of commotion and silence, the Trinity worked redemption in responding to the grief & sorrow of this community.
This act of redemption seems to follow a law of our human condition and the most profound of Christian mysteries. The Trinity responds to our grief in the most challenging tragedies and inevitably infuses us with hope. This hope comes from the Advocate Christ promises us, the Holy Spirit that is among us now and inside each of us.
This past Sunday, the Church celebrated Pentecost, in which we commemorate the last part of the hope-giving cycle in the Paschal mystery and Easter Season. Jesus suffers death and is buried, rises from the dead, ascends to Heaven, and finally, the Spirit descends. This four-fold cycle is not just a one-time event two millennia ago. Instead, it is a concrete continually lived experience and insight into how God responds to all tragedy, especially today in Buffalo, Uvalde, Ukraine, and the vicissitudes of tragedy in our everyday lives.
This descent of the Spirit onto the marketplace characterized our experience in Buffalo, where every member on the East Side gathered and spoke the same language of grief & sorrow, joy & hope, love, and kinship and connection. This ongoing experience of the Paschal mystery slowly transforms the long-suffering of grief and the sting of death into the vitality of hope.
Let’s ask for the gift to receive the descent of the Spirit, to infuse us with hope, especially in those places of our hearts most filled with grief and sorrow. Thanks be to God for that Spirit among us.