Three weeks ago, thousands of citizens of El Paso, Texas, filled the Southwest University Park to listen to community and religious leaders from both sides of the Texas-Mexico border
assure them love would win over hate. I joined them that warm night.
People lined up for hours waiting to get into the memorial, which honored those people killed in the August 3 mass shooting by a white supremacist who targeted Hispanics. El Paso is more than 80 percent Hispanic. He shooter murdered 22 people shopping at Walmart, and injured about two dozen more. Less than 24 hours later, a different perpetrator killed nine people and injured 27 August 4 in Dayton, Ohio.
On the baseball field luminarias glowed — nine white circles commemorating
the Dayton victims, and 22 stars in honor of those killed in El Paso.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said battling white supremacy would be a priority for state police. He announced the creation of a group to battle domestic terror. A large electronic screen showed photographs and short bios of those killed in the El Paso shooting. Some of the survivors were in the crowd, weeping, remembering. Other people came to support them and their families, and to show the heart of El Paso. Normally the stadium is home of the Chihuahuas, a minor league baseball team and Triple-A affiliate team of the San Diego Padres.
Andrew Wise, 28, said a friend’s grandmother was killed at the Walmart. He said he was there for that family, but also for all the Texan and Mexican grieving families.
“Just being here, just having everybody to support each other really shows how tight knit this city and community is with each other,” said Wise, who works for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “And how much we want to just lift each other back up.”
He said the shooting shattered the sense of safety in this Texas border town where many Mexicans come to shop and visit relatives.
“Of course, you never want to see any city or any families go through something like this, and you always hope that it never comes to your city,” said Wise, who was born and raised in El Paso. “When it hits home directly, it gives a whole bunch of different meaning and a whole — it hurts a lot worse when it gets right up close to home.
“And El Paso being one of the safest cities,” he told me, echoing what many said that week. “You think that we’re gonna be always safe. And as soon as somebody came and did this tragedy to us, now, like, our guard is higher. Our awareness is up. Everyone’s on edge. It just destroyed our sense of security. Like, everyone jumps at any loud sound. It just ruined a lot of things for everybody.”
Claudia Calderon also came to the stadium to show her support. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Calderon said when she became a mother, she decided to move to El Paso to be near her family— and to feel safer. Now she feels afraid.
There is “the fear that we thought we had left behind when we moved away from Los Angeles,” said Calderon, 36. “You know, you’re always watching your back in L.A., going from just to your car or whatever. There’s day-to-day violence there that you don’t see here. And all of a sudden, it felt like this bubble that we were living in bursted with this, with the violence.”
Because she and her children are Hispanic-American, this particular white-supremacist shooting made a “huge difference,” to her. “I think that it instills a fear of being who you are.”
She added that since the shooting happened, when she goes to the grocery store, she leaves her children at home — for now.
Two days after the memorial service, many more El Pasoans gathered outside an overflowing church to show another survivor they were his new family.
After 63-year-old Margie Reckard was murdered in Walmart, her husband Antonio Basco told the funeral home that he had no family in El Paso. He asked if he could open the funeral to the public. They had to move it to a larger church, because the response was so great. More than 900 flower arrangements and thousands of sympathy cards arrived from Texas, around the country and all over the world. People packed the church, and filed back outside after expressing their condolences, so others could enter the church.
“We just had to come and show our respect for his family, and to show him how great El Paso is,” said Dolores Luna, 77, lifelong resident of the city. “We’re going to get through this, one way or another. And we’re just so sorry of this tragedy that happened. In our hearts, deeply in our hearts, we are with him all the way.”
Luna, who was there with her family, said they often shopped at the Walmart where the shooting happened.
“I just couldn’t believe it. Walmart is our number-one store for my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. And I was just stunned. What if we would have been in one of the stores like that?” she told me. “My heart breaks.”
She was outside the church with hundreds of other people to witness the arrival of Basco, who runs an El Paso mobile car wash. In the nearly 100-degree heat, hundreds upon hundreds stood patiently in line for hours, many holding colorful umbrellas to block the sunshine.
“In our hearts, deeply in our hearts, we are with him all the way,” she said before walking up the church steps to greet Basco, who was surrounded by strangers hugging him.
Basco, tears in his eyes, said he could not believe the response from the public to the death of his “angel.”
After walking back down the crowded steps, Luna told reporters what she told the widower.
“You will always remember this, especially for your wife,” she said. “We will never forget you. This is your home, and it is El Paso strong for you and your family.”
Dan and Daisy Ramirez took their three children to the memorial for the 22 people killed 10 days earlier at an El Paso Walmart. The family quietly walked along the block-long memorial outside Walmart made up of candles, crosses, balloons, signs, stuffed animals and wooden crosses.
Daisy Ramirez, who works at an El Paso Walmart at a different location, said she both dreaded visiting the informal memorial outside the Walmart, and felt compelled to come.
“I just had to. I needed to come over here,” she said, standing at the edge of the memorial at the Cielo Vista Mall August 13. “I put myself in that cashier’s position, like what I would have done. I don’t know. I just needed to get it over with, and kind of relieve myself.”
One of the Walmart cashiers was hit by a bullet, but survived. Twenty-two people were shot and killed August 3 by a 21-year-old man, a white supremacist determined to kill Hispanics in a hate crime. More than 24 people were injured.
Hundreds of people continue to stop by the memorial, which looked like so many other cities’ mass shooting memorials. This one included signs of support from places of other shootings such as Dayton, Ohio, where nine people were killed and several people injured the day after the El Paso murders; from Gilroy, California, where three people were killed and 13 injured at a garlic festival in July; and Tucson, Arizona, where in 2011 six people were killed and 13 injured including United States Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords.
The El Paso couple said they have many friends and family — from both El Paso and Juarez — who regularly shop at the Ciela Vista Mall Walmart, referred to by locals as “The Mexican Walmart” because it is so close to the border and regularly draws many Mexican shoppers. The Saturday morning of the shooting, the store offered free or discounted back-to-school supplies including backpacks, so the place was filled with children, parents and grandparents.
The Ramirezes believed it was important to bring their children, 4, 7 and 10, to the memorial.
“It’s sad. We brought our kids so they could see that anything can happen,” Daisy Ramirez said. “They can learn from it and be aware of it.”
Her husband agreed.
“We don’t want to put it in our child’s mind, but we also have to be, you know, this is reality. I mean, life offers a lot of beautiful things,” Dan Ramirez said, “but there’s also things that we have to be aware of. And you just never know when anything can happen. You gotta be strong.”
Like so many people whose communities have experienced mass or other kinds of shootings, Dan Ramirez said he found the incident difficult to comprehend.
“We never thought it would happen. This community has been a very united place, very calm place, safe place,” said Dan Ramirez, born and raised in El Paso. “And, you know, for something like this, it’s just crazy and unbelievable for us.”
They said that, as Hispanics, the shooting makes them wary.
“With us, we’re more like on the lookout because we have the kids,” said Daisy Ramirez, who was born in El Paso but spent much of her childhood in Juarez. “So we’re constantly, like, looking back and forward.”
She added she and other Walmart employees are on edge.
“That next day, I had to go to work at 7:30 in the morning. And I was just really nervous [getting] from home to work,” she said. “Every person that goes in, we’re just looking after each other, you know. We’re on the lookout for anything, anything that might be suspicious.”
The couple posed for a picture, deciding it was safer not to have their children photographed alongside them.
Dan Ramirez picked up their 4-year-old son, and the family moved back toward the memorial. They joined dozens of others who were walking silently, some with tears rolling down their cheeks, many leaning on each other, past the keepsakes of memorializing.
“It’s gonna be hard to get over all this,” Daisy Ramirez said.
Not even two days after the 2015 shooting that killed nine worshipers in the African Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston, South Carolina, some victims’ family members publicly forgave the racist shooter.
At the court bond hearing of the gunman less than 48 hours after he murdered their loved ones, several relatives of those slain amazed the American public by expressing forgiveness for the young white man who killed the African Americans at the AME Church. He was hoping to reignite the race wars, he told police. Instead, he received the survivors’ absolution.
“I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, whose mother Ethel Lance, 70, was killed in the church. “And have mercy on your soul.”
Collier was not alone. Several other AME church members expressed anger and deep sadness because of their losses, but also forgiveness.
Polly Sheppard was not at the bond hearing. Though she had been in the church and survived the June 17, 2015, shooting, she did not want to speak publicly during the initial months.
“I kept quiet because I wanted to go to those funerals, and [the media] didn’t know my face. I would be able to go without disrupting the funerals,” she said. It was several months before she spoke publicly about the violent ordeal. “I wanted to give the families time to grieve and everything before I started talking.”
Today she has become one of the informal spokespersons for the survivors, and her message is often about the power of forgiveness.
Forgiveness “relieves all the pressure off of you,” Sheppard said. “You’re at peace. It’s an inward peace.”
Since the shooting, Sheppard has found herself in an unfamiliar position.
“I keep saying it’s a new job, to talk,” said Sheppard who was 70 the night of the shooting. A retired nurse, her natural inclination had long been to shy away from the spotlight.
Nearly four years after the shooting, Sheppard sat in her modest Summerville home, a large painting of President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama on the wall. “I like to talk about forgiveness,” she said. “We forgave him, and I didn’t want the death penalty for him, either. I wanted him to be able to repent and turn his life around.”
Summerville is a Charleston suburb, approximately 25 miles from downtown.
Sheppard often travels to meet with other shooting-incident survivors. She recalled one man who argued with her about forgiveness.
She was meeting with survivors of the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue hate-crime shooting in Pittsburgh. An anti-semitic killed 11 people and injured seven during Shabbat services on October 27, 2018.
One synagogue survivor told Sheppard he did not think he would ever be able to forgive the man who took so many lives that morning.
“Well, you have to live with that. It’s a problem. If you forgive him, you can go on with your life. It takes time, and so it's not done right away,” she told him.
In addition to her faith, which she admits was temporarily shaken that violent night in the AME church where she worshipped for nearly four decades, she is also a great believer in survivors seeking professional help.
“They need counseling, they really need counseling,” she said, then turning to advice. “And, stay in prayer.”
For her, though, forgiveness has been the key as both a survivor and a believer.
“The forgiveness part, I think it helped,” she said. “People will call me, and tell me how glad [they were] to hear me, and how good they felt after I left.”
The gunman in the AME church told Sheppard, “I’m going to leave you to tell the story,” she recounted, explaining why she was not shot. She said she is doing just that, but not by telling his story the way he had hoped.
“That’s why I say divine intervention,” she said, indicating she was doing God’s work. “I’m not telling the story about him. I’m telling the story on forgiveness. And how God will lead you in the right direction if you listen.”
For one survivor whose son was killed on the streets of greater Charleston, she is not there yet.
“A lot of people, they come up with, ‘You should forgive him,’” said Tisa Whack, whose son Tyrell Miles, 23, was shot by a young man who lived nearby. The man, who is serving time in prison, never expressed regret for shooting her son and one of his friends, which makes it difficult for Whack to feel forgiveness. “I tell people I’m not there yet, and I’m not gonna lie to anybody. I hate this guy to a core.”
Sitting in her office during her lunch hour, surrounded by photographs of her son, Whack referred to members of the AME church.
“A lot of people use the example of the Mother Emanuel, when they talk about how they forgave and it was even less than 24 hours. And I respect them for that,” said Whack, whose son Ty was her only child. She and another mom grieving her own dead son started the nonprofit We Are Their Voices, to help other young men in the community.
She said her son’s murder made her question her faith. Though she regularly attends church again, she is not in a place to forgive.
“I still struggle with it,” Whack said frankly.
A survivor of a different shooting does believe forgiveness helped him deal with the ripple effects of losing his father to gun violence.
Pardeep Kaleka’s father and five others died in the 2012 shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and four others were wounded by the neo-Nazi who entered the gurwara, or temple, on August 5, 2012. Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, was president of the suburban Milwaukee gurwara.
Kaleka found his way to forgiveness partly through his unexpected friendship with Arno Michaelis, a former neo-Nazi and former member of the violent, white supremacists group the Hammerskins. The Sikh Temple killer also belonged to that skinhead group, whose members are often in racist rock bands.
A reformed Michaelis reached out to Kaleka after the shooting, offering his support. Eventually he and Kaleka wrote the book “The Gift of Our Wounds.” Kaleka said their connection created an atmosphere of forgiveness of the man who killed his father and other worshipers. The book focuses on learning about different cultures to bring understanding and forgiveness.
After the temple shooting, Kaleka went to graduate school to become a counselor. He counsels people to forgive, when they are ready.
“I would put the possibility in their hearts that, you know, forgiveness is a journey that they might want to take,” said Kaleka, sitting in his counseling office after a workout. He added that he would not suggest it too close to the date of their trauma. “What we get to is a place where I [suggest they] look back at their pain and they’re going to, you know, perhaps have this transformational approach to life.”
Kaleka said that through forgiveness and acceptance of his vulnerability, he has learned to live in the moment and appreciate the life he was given.
“In just the weirdest way, I’m much more happy,” he said. “And I don’t think that would have happened if the shooting wouldn’t have happened.”
Kaleka recently took a new job, a move that seemed natural, given his path. In June 2019, Kaleka was named executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, a nonprofit of faith leaders dedicated to building dialogue and relationships to counter hate and fear, and to fight for social equality.
“When we talk about forgiveness and we talk about acts of kindness, we talk about, you know, who we are, who we’re meant to be,” said Kaleka, a father of four. “And I think those journeys are the ones that are the most worth taking.”
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.