As It Happens·Q&A

Buffalo mass shooting has this local pastor fearing for his neighbours and children

In the wake of the mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., Pastor Darius G. Pridgen is trying to comfort his community, guide his children and make sense of a senseless act.

‘I live two blocks away from the supermarket,’ says Darius G. Pridgen. ‘I was there the day before’

Bishop Darius Pridgen speaks during a service at True Bethel Baptist Church the day after a mass shooting in his Buffalo, N.Y., neighbourhood. (Joshua Bessex/The Associated Press)

Story Transcript

In the wake of the mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., Pastor Darius G. Pridgen is trying to comfort his community, guide his children and make sense of a senseless act.

Maybe later, he says, when the funerals are over and the bodies are buried, he'll take a moment to check in with himself. 

Ten people were killed and three wounded on Saturday, when a white 18-year-old wearing military gear and live streaming with a helmet camera opened fire at Tops Friendly Markets in a predominantly Black neighbourhood of Buffalo. Police described the attack as "racially motivated violent extremism."

Authorities are investigating a virulently racist 180-page online manifesto, believed to have been authored by the gunman, which outlines the "great replacement theory," a white supremacist conspiracy that white people are being replaced by minorities in the United States and elsewhere. 

Pridgen is a pastor at True Bethel Baptist Church, and the president of the municipal government's Buffalo Common Council. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

What was the first thing you thought about when you woke up this morning?

I hope this is a dream. That's the first thing. I looked and went to the window and realized that it wasn't a dream.

You've said [in an NPR interview] that you don't feel like a pastor right now, but like a boy from Buffalo who is grieving. Can you tell us what you mean by that?

All these titles that are in front of my name or in back of my name mean absolutely nothing to me right now. Not that they usually do. But right now, it means even less.

And the reason is because after a while and after something like this, you recognize how human you are, how close to death you could have been. You hurt with those who are hurting.

The weight of carrying the title right now or needing to be anything else is really not healthy for me personally right now. It's just being Darius and caring, and being able to grieve like our community and just taking a breather from needing to lead — although I'm still in the front. But turning around to hug and to be a part of the grieving will help me to make better decisions when I need to be back on the stage of the Common Council.

People embrace outside the scene of Saturday's mass shooting. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

Have you been to that supermarket before?

It is a supermarket I shop at. I live two blocks away from the supermarket. It is the only supermarket within walking distance in our community. I was there the day before.

I left my house a little after 2 p.m. [on the day of the shooting] to go down to get a pack of hot dogs and decided to go and find a restaurant and buy a cooked one instead.

My laziness may have kept me alive at the end of the day.

How are you reflecting on that now?

What I'm reflecting on more is my kids. I still have two teenagers at home and my wife. You know, for me, I'm a military vet. I've always had my mind conditioned [for] giving my life when needed. However, my children shouldn't have to be conditioned about … being afraid for their life to go into a grocery store.

And if this gunman accomplished nothing more, it is about that kind of on-edge fear. Especially when you look at the amount of senior citizens that he gunned down and killed without any remorse.

That's how I'm feeling. I'm feeling afraid for my neighbourhood.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul hugs Pridgen during an emotionally charged church service on Sunday. (Joshua Bessex/The Associated Press)

How do you talk to your kids about that?

Directly. I talk to them directly about it.

My wife yesterday when I came home, and after doing so many interviews, she was going to send my 13-year-old upstairs as we kind of debriefed. And I said, no, he can stay right here if he wants to, because I need him to know the reality.

He's getting older. I need them to know that he is a Black man living in America in which everybody is not for him. And I need him to know that so that he will go to school and get an education, so he will try to help change the world as much as possible.

So I deal with him directly. No sugarcoating.

How did he respond?

He was silent. He, this morning, didn't want to go to school. He felt that he may be questioned about my comments that I've been making very publicly. And he says, you know, "Whenever Papa makes comments on the news and I get to school, some of the teachers ask me about what he said and I just don't want to deal with it."

And we gave him the license this morning to politely tell a teacher that, "I don't want to talk about this today."

We did pull both of our children out of school [part way through the day.] It was eerie taking them to school. Many of the students did not come today. And I just felt like maybe he needed that arm of protection for another day.

People pay their respects and lay flowers outside the scene of the shooting. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

Pastor, did you know any of the victims personally?

Absolutely. The security guard [Aaron Salter]. Definitely knew him. Knew him when he was a Buffalo police officer. Would see him when I would go in Tops. He would escort me back to my car. 

A woman ... that we call Kat [Katherine Massey], who wrote a lot of op-ed pieces here. She lived in our district. I've been to her house. 

In Buffalo and in the east side, there's only about two degrees of separation, so almost every person who has died there is a connection.

Authorities say that they're investigating a very disturbing manifesto that was allegedly written by the gunman, which talks about this very racist great replacement theory. I mean, how do you make sense of the fact that Black people in your community were so directly targeted?

I don't think you can. I can't make sense out of a senseless situation. I've read portions of the manifesto. I've watched the video. And there is no sense to it. There is no excuse for it.

I'm not probably in a good place to try to make sense of a killer's motivation. But what I do make sense of is trying to heal our community and ensure that there's peace in our community. 

But this person, this animal, I don't make any sense of anything he's done.

What were you looking for when you read parts of that manifesto?

I was looking and hoping that what I was told was incorrect, that there isn't anybody alive who has that much hate for a race of people. And unfortunately, I was disappointed because I found everything that I was hoping I wouldn't.

As a pastor, you are the one who is trying to provide strength and maybe solace to people. I mean, who's giving that back to you right now? Because you must be really hurting.

In all honesty, many people have tried. I just haven't allowed it at this point.

It's a point where people need leadership. They want leadership. 

I do a lot of funerals in the city and I do the majority of homicide funerals. I have almost trained my brain, whether this is healthy or not, to connect without connecting so deeply that I lose myself.

Maybe after we've buried our dead, then I'll deal with my own self. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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