‘Our prayers go up’: Kansas City Catholics turn to faith, dialogue after Ralph Yarl shooting

People attended a protest in Kansas City, Mo., April 18, 2023, after 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, who is Black, was shot and wounded by a white homeowner after the boy mistakenly went to the wrong house to pick up his siblings. (OSV News Photo by Dominick Williams, Reuters)

By Gina Christian

Catholics in Kansas City, Missouri, are turning to faith, dialogue and discernment after a local Black teen was shot by a white homeowner for mistaking an address in the course of picking up his younger siblings.

Ralph Yarl, 16, sustained wounds to his left forehead and right arm when 84-year-old Andrew Lester shot the teen April 13 after Yarl knocked on his door. The teen was released from the hospital April 16, with his family’s attorney, Lee Merritt, calling Yarl’s recovery “miraculous.”

In April 18 messages on his Twitter and Facebook accounts, Kansas City – St. Joseph Bishop James V. Johnston asked for prayers for “Ralph’s full recovery as he and his family deal with his serious physical and emotional wounds.”

The teen’s aunt, Faith Spoonmore, wrote on a GoFundMe page that her nephew — an accomplished musician and academically gifted student — still faces “a long road ahead mentally and emotionally.”

Lester was charged April 17 with first-degree assault. He surrendered the next day and was released after posting bond. After pleading not guilty in court April 19, Lester — who told police he thought Yarl was attempting to break in — now faces a court appearance June 1.

The shooting has sparked outcry over both racial tensions and gun violence, with local and national leaders — including President Joe Biden — weighing in. Clay County prosecuting attorney Zachary Thompson has been quoted in the media as stating “there was a racial component in this case,” but is pursuing first-degree assault rather than hate crime charges. Some legal analysts have speculated Lester’s defense will invoke Missouri’s “stand your ground” law, which permits the use of deadly force if a person has reasonable grounds to fear for his or her life.

Father Philip Egan, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Kansas City, said his first reaction to the shooting — which took place some three miles away — was to “start praying for the community.”

Gun violence, particularly “the shooting of young people,” has become “a rampant epidemic,” one that affects teens and youth “from East Coast to west, from north to south.”

Holy Family parishioners of all ages “are carrying a heavy burden as more and more information comes out” about the Yarl shooting and other incidents of gun violence, said Father Egan.

“They’re struggling, as our young people are, with what to do, how to respond,” he said.

As a result, the crisis demands “a call to prayer and to some kind of gathering of the people,” said Father Egan.

Bishop Johnston said in his online message that “it is beautiful to see” how the Kansas City area is “rallying around Ralph Yarl and his family, refusing to accept that a Black teenager could be shot simply for ringing the wrong doorbell.”

“Healthy communities must be founded on the bedrock of charity, respect, and trust rather than fear,” said the bishop.

Holy Family pastoral associate Christen Cota said that she, Father Egan and their pastoral team “are having discussions about putting together a prayer service for peace for the community.”

In addition, Cota hopes to coordinate a parish event “for people to come together for discussion (to look) at the church’s teaching on community, peace and the dignity of the human person.”

The pastoral team is seeking “to give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to inform us of our call, our next step and what we can do within our community,” said Cota. “We will let the Holy Spirit be our guide.”

The sacrifice of the Mass is at the heart of that effort, said Father Egan.

“We’re making sure as we participate in the Eucharist that we’re mindful our prayers go up,” he said. “Our prayers go up.”

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