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Buffalo Pastor Says He Is Moving Past Bitterness, Praying for Supermarket Shooter’s Soul

True Bethel Baptist Church
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden pay their respects at a memorial to the victims of the May 14 shooting at Tops Supermarket, Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Buffalo, New York. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz).The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ahead of this week’s sentencing of the Buffalo supermarket shooter, a prominent local pastor is sharing what the past nine months have been like for his congregation and community. Darius Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church on the city’s east side, says the May 2022 massacre and two record-setting blizzards this winter have left congregants “on high alert” and “numb.” But the pastor and church are continuing their efforts to rebuild the community and offer hope to residents.

On Feb. 15, the 19-year-old shooter who traveled 200 miles to target African Americans is expected to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. That sentencing is for 15 state charges, to which the teen pled guilty in November. He also is facing federal charges, and attorneys indicate he might plead guilty to those too, if the death penalty is off the table. Ten people were killed in the massacre at Tops Friendly Market, the only grocery store in the predominantly Black area.

True Bethel Baptist Church Pastor: ‘I’m Not as Bitter’

Pastor Pridgen, a 58-year-old Air Force veteran who also serves on a town council, admits dealing with anger and an unforgiving heart after the shooting. “I’m not as bitter as I was, especially as justice continues to move forward and I see some of the families in a better position emotionally,” he tells ABC News. “At this point, I’m at the point of praying for [the gunman’s] soul and for him to have a change of mind.”

Pridgen says the massacre has sparked important conversations. “The one thing this white supremacist idiot did for us is he gave us a key to talk about racism, to talk about white supremacy without being labeled as playing the race card,” the pastor says. “I’ve said this to my white colleagues who are pastors: If you didn’t address this in your church, please don’t call me anymore.”

Because the gunman reportedly scouted True Bethel Baptist Church and other local Black churches, Pridgen says his congregation is “still on high alert.” Although his church upgraded its security and surveillance systems, the pastor says New York’s new gun legislation is actually an obstacle. Only police officers and licensed private security may now carry concealed weapons in churches. “All of us here are right now going, ‘What do we do?’” Pridgen says.

East Buffalo Church Serves Community Needs

During Pridgen’s 28 years at True Bethel Baptist Church, the church has become known for community outreach. Its food pantry and food truck were extra busy after the shooting, when the supermarket was closed. For a decade, True Bethel has offered no-cost “Freedom Funerals” for homicide victims. As long as families permit grief counselors to be present, they pay nothing for the funerals.

The church also cleaned up a nearby toxic waste dump and helped establish low-income and senior housing on the site. “They’re a very progressive congregation, and they’ve helped sustain east Buffalo,” says Garnell Whitfield, a retired fire commissioner whose elderly mother was killed at the Tops market. “They’ve been an anchor there.”