“When the world is sick can’t no one be well
But I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong.”
The group Silver Mount Zion recorded the words of this song, entitled “God Bless Our Dead Marines,” in 2011.
But in the wake of a year where people of faith have died in churches and synagogues from Texas to Pennsylvania, this song has been sung as a growing chorus of religious leaders in the D.C. area are seeking ways to forge new partnerships while at the same time protecting their own houses of faith.
Rev. Barbara Williams Skinner, a former advisor to President Barack Obama, says that things cannot remain the same. “We need to step out of comfort zones to meet with the other, no matter what the ‘other’ is. That’s how we defeat racism and violence. Love in actions trumps hate everyday.”
Rabbi Eli Backman, leader of the Chabad House at the University of Maryland, College Park, says, “Going beyond hate takes education.”
“Education should not just be about facts and figures. It also has to be about character and values,” Backman says. “Our sages tell us that this is to teach us that no one is greater than the next, and we are all equal in God’s eyes,” Backman continues. “This educates children that this world is not only about selfies, but about being selfless! Then we can start to address the society-created divisions which lead to violence and we can begin to live beyond hate.”
Rev. Cheryl Sanders, pastor of the Third Street Church of God in the District and an Associate Professor at the Howard University School of Divinity, says that in addition to forging new partnerships as a pastor, she has to worry about the safety and security of those in her congregation.
“We all have to be vigilant,” Sanders says. “What do we do when an active shooter is in our church? How do you keep our sanctuary safe? What do we do we do protect ourselves?”
The massacres keep coming. Among them: On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, walked into a prayer service at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine people. Three others were injured.
One year ago, on Nov. 5, 2017, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley walked into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and killed 26 people and injured 20 others.
And eleven people perished at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the Shabbat service on Oct. 27 after Robert Gregory Bowers walked into the temple and opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, killing eight men and three women before a police team tracked him down and he was shot.
Terry Lynch, Executive Director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations in D.C., says, “Houses of worship have been deeply concerned since the tragedy in Charleston and last year’s shooting in Sutherland, Texas. Hate crime violence and domestic violence have occurred at congregations as they are so-called soft targets. Congregations will remain open and welcoming, but are taking an array of steps to improve safety.”
Aaron Miller, Associate Rabbi of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, says that the fatal shooting of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh hit close to home because “My wife is from Squirrel Hill, and we got married in Temple Sinai which is located in the same community.”
“There is so much that has divided us,” Miller says. “This was inconceivable years ago. I never thought that something like this would happen in my lifetime. There is such a need for people of faith to see that it is God that connects us.”
Miller says that going forward, people must continue to work together and have joint events under one banner.
“It is God that brings us back together,” Miller says. “When men and women of faith can see the face of God in one another, that is how we become whole again.”
Rabbi Aaron Alexander of the Adas Israel congregation says that faith leaders have the responsibility to confront the forces behind the fear and divisiveness, “wherever it emerges, no matter how high the office.” Alexander believes that the racial divisions in this country are, in part, fueled by unfounded fears.
“Part of the division in this country is that people want to build walls to protect themselves from a perceived enemy, that are being built by anyone with a microphone. But that’s not what a faithful heart does,” Alexander says. “A faithful heart doesn’t build a wall. It knocks one down and it reaches across the rubble, grabs someone’s hand and pulls them in.”
Rev. Thomas Bowen, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs, attended an interfaith prayer service at Adas Israel on Monday, Oct. 29, “to underscore the love in ‘beloved’ and to say that hate has no place in our city and that we must always stand strong together against racism, bigotry, and prejudice in all of its many forms.” Mayor Muriel Bowser as well as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam also attend the event.
Evangelist L. Michelle Bush, senior pastor of the Gathering Seed Fellowship Church in Northeast D.C., started her ministry in the last year in an effort to reach out to a diverse group of families in the communities that line H Street NE, and she has been encouraged that people of different faiths can work together in a safe environment.
“My heart goes out to the mourners of the Jewish faith just the same as if it were members of my very own family,” says Bush. “This made it more concerning to me that many churches may not have nor may be aware of safety measures they can take to prepare for an active shooter.”
Bush says faith leaders must be deliberate when it comes to building partnerships. “I’m in the process of forming an interfaith clergy round table, and even though it is risky, I am excited about the possibilities,” she says. One thing she’s already planning: emergency preparedness trainings to area congregations of all faiths.