Driving to the East Side of Buffalo, to the Tops grocery store, you take “the 33,” a highway built in the 1950s and 1960s that wiped out a Frederick Law Olmsted–designed green space and cut through a Black neighborhood.
Before construction of the 33—also known as the Kensington Expressway—a schoolteacher whose house was a few blocks from where the Tops would eventually open wrote to the local newspaper, mourning what the highway would do to the neighborhood and the Olmsted park land.
“Only a complete materialist could ride the mile-and-a-half of this street without being thrilled by its beauty,” Cornelia Metz said.
But much more was lost than scenery. The highway isolated the East Side of Buffalo economically and racially, segregating Black families. Today the East Side has zip codes with poverty rates almost double that of the region and a low Black homeownership rate compared with white homeownership in the region.
The racial isolation was evident on May 14, 2022: Authorities said the white supremacist shooter who went to Tops that day chose the store because he was looking for a place with a high concentration of Black residents. He killed 10 and wounded three. After the shooting, the economic isolation was evident when Tops closed and the neighborhood was left without a grocery store.
Six months later, it would be easy for a violence-weary nation to forget about what happened at Tops. There have been at least a dozen mass shootings in America since. The problem can seem as large and intractable as a concrete freeway, a new reality simply to be endured.
But in Buffalo, some Christians do not see it that way. A handful of Black leaders on Buffalo’s East Side have decided they do not have to sit at a distance and feel hopeless. Instead they want to model how, by drawing near a wound, they can help heal it. As one leader told me, “Until those people become your people, and you have skin in the game, there’s no real call to action.”
Christian community-development practitioners have long argued that a community’s healing, whether from violence or poverty, begins locally. It begins with the community’s own assets and continues with assistance from nonprofits and government programs.
East Buffalo may not have other grocery stores, but it has assets. The Buffalo News counted at least 15 houses of worship within six blocks of Tops. One churchgoer, Quintella “Queenie” Cottrell, told the News that her church will “forgive that guy [the shooter], as painful and as hard as that is.” She added: “We are not going to let him and others like him destroy our community and neighborhood.”
In fact, young Black Christians who grew up in the neighborhood were already working to change their city before May 14. When a gunman took the lives of close friends, it spurred them on to more love and good works.
“That community is still standing there not because of all the help that came in—though that is helpful—but because the bones of that community were really strong,” said Brek Cockrell, pastor of Renovation Church in Buffalo, who has a lot of relationships in the East Side. “What they bear is crazy.”
On the day it all happened, Kelly Diane Galloway, 36, had planned a lovely afternoon for the girls in the East Side neighborhood where she grew up. Forty girls, from second grade to high school, piled into limos wearing dresses and fascinators.
Galloway runs a local anti-human trafficking organization, Project Mona’s House, and she noticed over the years that the women her organization helped were getting younger and younger. She now leads an “academy” to teach Black girls from her neighborhood about their value and dignity. May 14 was their graduation.
When Galloway and the girls returned from the celebration and turned on their phones, they saw the news about the shooting. At that point, no one knew who had been killed—was it an uncle, an aunt, a friend who worked at the grocery store? Some of the girls went home, changed out of their dresses, and biked over to Tops in the rain. They saw the bodies on the ground outside the store.
Galloway also went to Tops, still in her fascinator and makeup, and told the girls to go home to their parents. She was calling everyone she could think of to make sure they were alive.
The East Side is close knit and full of Galloway’s extended family. Her relatives own a coffee shop, Golden Cup, right next to Tops. She remembered the day Tops opened, and she remembered her grandma sending her and her cousins down to the store when they were old enough to walk by themselves. Her grandpa would give them a little money to get ice cream, money her grandma didn’t know about.
Now she has new memories there. Her friend’s son Zaire Goodman was one of the wounded—she went to his birthday party the week after the shooting. She knew the murdered security guard, Aaron Salter.
Galloway has energy. She wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to work out, and last year she led a group walking 900 miles of a route of the Underground Railroad ending in Buffalo, to raise awareness about modern trafficking.
The day after the attack, Galloway and others got to work: They fed 300 people (she also chairs the board of a local food bank) and led a worship service by the grocery store.
The Monday after the shooting, they fed people again, and Tuesday was the first large vigil and worship service (led by Galloway and another young Black leader from the East Side, Jamil Crews). All her days after that were full: She organized a solidarity bike ride, therapy sessions for the community, and plans to get local food trucks to the grocery store.
She also helped bring a truck from New York City called the Peacemobile that provides spa services. At one point, Galloway allowed herself to sit in the Peacemobile, and they put headphones on her playing relaxing bird sounds while putting lavender on her hands. That was the first time she’d had quiet since the shooting, and when she closed her eyes she saw the bodies on the ground again. She started crying and couldn’t catch her breath.
“People are tired of being afraid. We’re just tired,” she said. “We don’t have no way to feel right now. Being numb is very dangerous. Because God created our feelings for a reason. We want to be able to feel happy moments.”
For a while, Galloway couldn’t post the pictures of the girls’ graduation from that night because it didn’t feel right. She tried to keep the girls in her program from seeing the video of the shooting online; but some of them happened upon it anyway.
After the shooting, some of the girls began acting out in school, and Galloway did “healing circles” all summer to talk about their feelings and give them coping mechanisms.
Ten days after the shooting, between funerals for the victims, Galloway was sitting in her Project Mona’s House office planning summer programs and coordinating a food distribution for that evening near Tops. One wall of her office was a whiteboard covered with to-dos. The writing extended in erasable ink to the office’s glass doors. Her phone kept ringing.
At that moment in May, Galloway hoped for big things for six months after the shooting: for America as a nation to have more empathy. But she also hoped for smaller, more measurable things: that Tops would reopen, that there would at least be plans for two more grocery stores on the East Side.
“Six months from now, I would hope the Black community doesn’t have to be as strong,” she said. “The reason being that our white brothers and sisters are helping to carry the load.”
Christian Community Development Association founder John Perkins, now 92, mourned his brother’s death by a white police officer and experienced racial violence as a leader in the civil rights movement when police beat and tortured him for hours one night.
Though he experienced unjust systems, and accounts for them in his body of work, he focused on the local church as an agent of transformation. If the local church is not committing resources in its immediate local community, “it cannot be prophetic,” Perkins said in a 1982 interview with CT.
In his 2018 book, One Blood, which he has described as his last manifesto, Perkins emphasized that the problem of racial reconciliation in the country is “too big” for anything other than God working through local churches.
Perkins has a framework for development and racial reconciliation in poor neighborhoods. He describes a local neighborhood thriving through the “relocators,” people who moved to the neighborhood to build it up; the “returners,” people who were born and raised, left for a better life, but came back; and the “remainers,” those who stayed in the neighborhood despite hardships. Buffalo’s East Side has all of those—relocators, returners, and remainers—working through local churches. And the returners and remainers were working to improve the community long before any mass shooting.
Kyria Stephens grew up with Galloway on the East Side. He worked as a pastor and had a professional rap career. Now married, he has three children and is the director of inclusion and community initiatives at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
Stephens, Galloway, and other Christian friends protested after the murder of George Floyd in the spring of 2020. They were at the protest where Buffalo police officers pushed an elderly man to the ground, inflicting a brain injury (charges against the officers were later dismissed).
Stephens said he learned during that protest that work had to be multigenerational, so he hopes Buffalo’s future changes would come from the young and the old.
During those protests Stephens, wrote a song, “A.L.T.P.” In it, he raps, “Somebody tell the church they need to do more than pray. … Y’all be playing with my life like it’s just a game.” At the end of the song, he recites all of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” (vv. 1–2, ESV).
After the Tops shooting, Stephens organized a collaborative group of 25 leaders to make plans for the future of the East Side, a group that included Galloway. As recovery money pours into Buffalo from the government and corporate donations, the group wants to have a seat at the table to help figure out the best way to use it. A $5 million survivor fund that was established, for instance, opened complex conversations about who counts as a survivor.
Stephens wanted big changes in his city, but he wept when he talked about smaller moments, like a conversation with his 13-year-old about the shooting. He hated seeing her “questioning her place” in society and whether her white friends secretly harbored hatred toward her. He told her to share with her closest white friend how she felt, one small way of fighting isolation between communities.
“George Floyd woke people up to injustice,” Stephens said. “But just like anything, when something happens, if it happens to somebody that isn’t close to them, it’s like, ‘Aw, that’s terrible, I hate that.’ But when it happens in your own community it hits you in a different way.”
Stephens wants Christians from different backgrounds in the city to go to each others’ birthday parties and weddings. In August, a group of Buffalo churches, suburban and urban, continued a nearly 20-year tradition called Breakout, where they hold block parties together in different neighborhoods for a week. They have food, music, face painting, games, and worship. This year, one of the block parties was in front of Tops. Stephens, who has a rental company on the side, provided bounce houses for the week. Hundreds of people came out, and the churches filled a big tub to baptize people.
Cockrell, a white pastor who leads a mostly Black and Latino church in Buffalo, knows Galloway and Stephens. He’s watched them and other young Black Christian leaders go unrecognized for years.
“They understand what time it is and the hurt and the struggle, but they’re not fatalistic,” Cockrell said. “They’re creating things.”
Viewed through John Perkins’s lens, Cockrell is a “relocater,” a white pastor who moved to Buffalo 20 years ago and has built a web of relationships on the East Side. His church has been involved in holistic ministries providing everything from housing to medical needs.
Galloway takes women in her antitrafficking program to churches around the city they might want to attend, and she remembered visiting Cockrell’s church when it was packed with “Black people, white people, Hispanic people, wealthy people, poor people.”
“The first time I heard that man preach, I wept. Because I had never seen a white man speak so boldly against racism,” she remembered. She went up to him after and said, “Listen, Imma rock with you.”
Cockrell will call white Christians and tell them about Galloway’s organization and say, “You need to know who she is.” Those little conversations, relationships, and moments are how locals sense some change.
How does a nation change, heal, and grow after a white supremacist attack?
Months after the Buffalo shooting, local churches hosted panel discussions on race. Galloway and Stephens watched and spoke on some of those panels, but they didn’t see much come from them.
Jennifer Berry Hawes, a longtime reporter for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, wrote a book on the 2015 Emanuel AME church shooting, Grace Will Lead Us Home. In her years covering the aftermath of the attack, in which a white supremacist killed nine Black elders at a Bible study, she didn’t see much result from the high-level conversations on race. She remembered a unity march across one of Charleston’s big bridges a few days after the shooting and people wondering whether that was enough to move on.
But some people in Charleston didn’t move on, in her view.
“The changes that were made were very local,” she told CT. “They were made by local people with the connections they made here.”
The shooter killed Myra Thompson, the wife of Anthony Thompson, pastor of Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church in Charleston. Thompson made it a priority to see changes in the city and to preach the power of forgiveness anywhere people would listen to him. He had spoken at the shooter’s bond hearing, telling him, “I forgive you. … But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that he can change it.”
After the attack, four predominantly white churches in the city asked Thompson to have pulpit exchanges and meals together. Thompson agreed because, as he said to CT, “The church has … to take the lead to tell people what they need to do for healing.”
A pastor of one of the white churches invited Thomas to a church gathering at his house but warned him that not everyone was happy about him coming. Thompson went and saw what he meant, although some in the congregation came up to him with welcoming faces and conversation.
“I … went over to people who didn’t want me to be there. They were not paying me no attention, not saying ‘hi’ or nothing, eating off little plates,” Thompson. “I would say, ‘Excuse me!’ I stood right up there in front of them.”
Over the years of pulpit exchanges and church suppers together, “some of them came around,” he said. One 90-year-old woman came up to him one day after he spoke and said loudly, so others could hear, that after getting to know him, “I learned I was a racist.”
When people said things like that to him, he would say, “I forgave all of y’all a long time ago.”
Thompson got to know Charleston’s mayor, John Tecklenburg, who seemed genuinely grieved by what happened. Tecklenburg, who took office in 2016, spearheaded the removal of a 120-foot statue to slavery and states’ rights defender John C. Calhoun from a downtown square in 2020. The city also passed a resolution in 2018 apologizing for its role in “regulating, supporting, and fostering slavery and the resulting atrocities,” which had never been done before. It promised to rebury and memorialize the remains of a number of African Americans, likely slaves, that had been recently discovered throughout the city.
Thompson, who grew up in Charleston, was surprised.
“Never in my lifetime did I expect anything like that,” he said. “This was a great surprising and shocking change.”
In August, Thompson was planning a march to landmarks of racism around Charleston, where they would discuss their history and “[pray] to the Lord to remove this attitude from the hearts of people so they will not perpetuate acts.”
All of those activities are a lot to expect from victims’ families. Thompson said he is feeling the “wear and tear … I really, really need a break.” He knows Buffalo’s hurt. “I am one of them. I know it’s going to take a lot for some of them to find peace and the comfort they need right now.”
On July 15, the Tops on Jefferson Avenue reopened.
Stephens was at the reopening. People from the community gathered and broke out into the song “Total Praise” before touring the renovated building. Stephens felt tears coming down his face as he went in the store.
And maybe some of Galloway’s dreams, of Tops reopening and more grocery stores coming to the community, will come true. Bishop Michael Chapman, head of St. John Baptist Church, which also has a large community development footprint in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, said his church’s community development arm pushed for a grocery years ago but couldn’t get it approved. After the shooting, city officials greenlit the project, which will go up in Fruit Belt neighborhood, about eight blocks from Tops.
“The power of God is moving and in the midst of all of this tragedy,” Chapman said.
And the Kensington Expressway? The state now has a plan to cover the highway and return it to a green space, reconnecting a neighborhood divided.
Healing, forgiveness, and recovery don’t run in straight lines upward. Tops employees who were in the store during the shooting had a hard time returning during renovations and hearing a jackhammer, according to The Buffalo News. Stephens’s wife works at a bank, and when someone recently dropped something on the floor with a big bang, everyone panicked.
And Galloway was frustrated about limited buy-in from white Christians in her sphere. While she was working with the girls in her program to not be resentful toward white people, she didn’t hear much from white Christians she knew in the city, even just asking how she was doing.
Cockrell, the longtime pastor of Renovation, along with two other white pastors from Vanguard Church, stayed in touch and visited. Some predominantly white churches sent more volunteers to her organization, but not money. Maybe they are supporting some other East Side project, she thought.
“I can’t make white people love us,” Galloway said. “All I can do is help my community to be better. I can help hold elected officials accountable. I’m done trying to convince people I’m a child of God too.”
In his 1982 interview with CT, Perkins shared a harsh criticism of the Moral Majority: “They will leave it to the blacks totally to deliver themselves.” If the Moral Majority were serious, he said, it would help a Black community in Atlanta or Chicago start a Black Bible college. Local change, in Perkins’s mind, was indicative of national change.
Galloway looks at the example of Nehemiah, who walked around Jerusalem when it needed to be rebuilt and took inventory.
“Nehemiah addressed all the elders of the city and told them, basically, We’re going to rebuild the city, but build the part in front of your house,” Galloway said. “As long as we’re all building, it will get better.”
Emily Belz is a news writer for CT.
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