In Wake of Pittsburgh Shooting, Faith Leaders Call for Solidarity, Congregation Safety
On Saturday, a gunman shattered peace in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. White House faith advisor Rev. Samuel Rodriguez and other diverse leaders respond.
Christian leaders are expressing solidarity with the Jewish community following a gunman’s violent rampage at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday. With national elections one week away, they are also discerning the lessons for people of faith during this polarized time.
“Truly it was a heart wrenching day,” says Rev. Samuel Rodriguez in an interview. “Nothing is quite as despicable as when worshippers of any tradition are targeted and murdered for what they believe.”
The gunman in Pittsburgh killed 11 people and injured six others, including four police officers.
Responding with Prayer and Truth
Rodriguez leads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), a network of over 42,000 evangelical churches nationwide.
He also serves on the informal White House Faith Leaders Initiative. The NHCLC collaborates with Jewish leaders and nonprofit groups in the U.S. and abroad.
Rodriguez echoes the mantra of Never Again, often used in reference to the Holocaust when six million Jews were killed. “Silence is not an option,” he continues. “This horrific manifestation of evil has made us all the more committed to bringing an end to anti-Semitism in this generation.
“Seeing every single human being in the image of God, we should treat each other with love and respect.”
Pittsburgh Shaken By Violence, United in Response
On Saturday morning, a deranged gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Three Jewish congregations were holding services in various parts of the building.
Identified later as 46 year-old Robert Bowers, he carried an assault rifle and three handguns. Evidence strongly indicates his motives were rooted in hatred towards Jews.
The eleven victims ranged in age from 54 to 97 years old. Visiting Pittsburgh this weekend, Dallas-area patrol sergeant Jeffrey Seif spoke with local leaders about the incident. Jewish by birth, the police officer previously lived in the city.
“Squirrel Hill is a decidedly Jewish area, though it’s a lot more diversified now,” says Seif. “They came together in massive prayer vigils. The coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers is part of that community.”
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) October 29, 2018
“I probably live 800 yards from that [congregation],” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin in a press conference. “Words cannot express how we feel as members of this community. Our hearts go out to victims’ families. We’re prayerful.”
Late Monday, one officer remained in critical condition and another was stable; two had been released. “These law enforcement officers exhibited unbridled courage,” says Rodriguez. “Running in to protect and defend worshipers is truly an exercise in heroism.”
How Congregations Can Blunt the Threat
Pennsylvania native Jeffrey Seif today serves as an instructor at Cedar Valley Police Academy in the Dallas area. He says faith leaders should see this incident as a wake-up call to take a deeper look at how to protect their congregation.
The Anti-Defamation League reports that anti-Semitic incidents have increased 57 percent in recent years. In addition, LifeWay Research notes 18 fatal church shootings in the U.S. since 1999. “It’s not getting any better, it’s getting worse,” says Seif. “Christian communities have also become targets of this insanity.”
Seif consults with places of worship regarding security plans. Churches of a certain size often have police officers on-site due to traffic control, he has noticed. But he and other experts stress that is hardly sufficient.
“They should have their own security apparatus in place,” says Seif. “It entails observing all who attend. This guy came in with an assault rifle. That should have been seen before he ever got past the foyer. He should have been stopped. Churches, mosques and synagogues can be sheepish about all this. The net result is someone comes in and wreaks havoc.”
A past shooting incident illustrates one strategy first responders follow. On September 15, 1999, a gunman entered Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. He killed seven people; most were students gathered for a See You at the Pole event. One young man who walked up and challenged him finally ended the gunman’s rampage.
“These are deranged individuals,” continues Seif. “You have to be a coward to vent your fury on unarmed people like that. Resistance is important, and few people are aware of that. If people stand up and make haste to get to him on the quick, they can catch him off balance. It could end in seconds.”
Standing Against Racist Violence
The scope of the Pittsburgh tragedy overshadowed a similar shooting incident last week. On October 24, a deranged 51 year-old white man shot and killed two African American senior citizens at a grocery store near Louisville, Kentucky. The shooting was racially motivated, according to the city’s police chief.
Faith leaders have mourned both shootings. Weeks ago, several leaders convened in Washington, D.C., to discuss The Political Theology of Martin Luther King Jr. Voices including Harvard University sociology lecturer Dr. Jacqueline Rivers examined current events in light of King’s life message.
“The culture has become so vicious,” said Rivers, who often speaks at black Protestant churches. “It’s just so angry and venomous. There is absolutely no room for forgiveness, understanding or reconciliation. King would have abhorred that, on the right and on the left.”
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, himself a student of King, heartily agrees. “Hateful, spiteful, divisive rhetoric from either the left or the right should always be repudiated by Christians,” he says. “I call it rhetorical pornography. It is abusive and may lead to violence.”
Rivers has been vocal about policy differences with President Trump. Such issues as immigration reform and prison reform seem stalled. Nonetheless, the Harvard lecturer urges activists to take King’s message to heart.
“He would be counseling all of us to dial the rhetoric down,” continued Rivers. “No matter how much we might disagree with the Trump administration, we do not allow the culture to descend to the place where it is now. If we put on King, those on the fence who are people of goodwill may be sensitized to our point of view.”
During Election Season, Speak Truth and Love
As a member of the White House Faith Leaders Initiative, Rodriguez has a particular message to conservatives.
“Let’s conserve our Judeo-Christian value system,” he says. “But if you are attempting to conserve some monochromatic vision of America as only of a certain ethnicity, you are no longer on the Christian hill. That’s a slippery slope. We need to repudiate all rhetoric from the alt-right that has any vestiges of white supremacy, racial bigotry, bias or prejudice.”
Seif, who also teaches at a congregation in the Dallas area, agrees that believers have a key role to play in society today. “People of faith should be like Christmas cards, bringing peace on earth and goodwill towards men,” he says. “We stand in solidarity with people who are being targeted like this. There is no place for it.”
Both leaders lament the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, and express commitment to address it where it exists. Rodriguez also recognizes that election rhetoric will be heated over the next week.
“Political discourse is part of who we are as a nation,” says Rodriguez. “We should speak up! When the ludicrous continue to exacerbate the public square, answer back with truth and love. We can respond in grace without surrendering to political or cultural expediency.”
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