'Act From A Place Of Love': 3 Religious Leaders On How They Are Responding To Recent Attacks

May 5, 2019
Originally published on May 5, 2019 1:14 pm
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Houses of worship have traditionally been places of refuge. But recent attacks by extremists have targeted people at prayer. Just recently, a shooting at a synagogue near San Diego, bombings at churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand and the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Religious leaders are confronting a dual reality. They must take measures to prepare for these attacks and also work from a place of faith and support. We asked three of these faith leaders to tell us what was on their minds, beginning with Rabbi Toba Schaller in Milwaukee.

TOBA SCHALLER: My community is feeling some fear and stress. And we're working really hard as a community to act from a place of love rather than a place of fear. We have had a sense for a long time that we were at risk because of hatred and violence against Jews and other minorities. It definitely changed after the attack in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue. And after that, our congregants got together and donated money to hire a chief of security for our congregation. So I think one of the concerns that we all have and that we're talking about is that this is already becoming normalized and a part of life. And that is really concerning to us all.

But also, as Jews we believe in a concept, mitzvah goreret mitzvah, that one deed of justice and love that God commands us to do perpetuates another and that sins or acts of evil perpetuate more sins and more acts of evil and more negativity. So it really is a Jewish value for us to respond to events like this with loving kindness.

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RONELL HOWARD: My name is Reverend Ronell Howard, and I am the pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Piscataway, N.J. I think just how we blissfully go through life as a Christian church here in the United States, in most parts of the country not thinking a whole lot about safety and now having to be confronted with it. I remember in one group meeting, one person saying that they had a member who offered to pay for armed security on Sunday mornings.

And everyone was in complete angst around it. Oh, what would that look like? And what would that mean? And should the church do it? And all of that. And I remember just saying, are you guys serious? Black churches have always had armed security. And they looked at me so shocked, like, wait - what? I'm like, yeah, like, as - for as long as I've been in church, and it has never been a given for black churches that it wouldn't be bombed; we think about Alabama. It wouldn't be burned; we think about Louisiana - or that someone might not come in during Bible study and shoot everyone save one person, right?

So with that being the black experience, I think the black church is a bit of - ahead of the curve on security. Whereas, in predominantly white spaces, it really comes as a saddening shock. I think the feeling in the room was this sense of loss of safety and security that the people in the room had always kind of counted on.

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OMAR SULEIMAN: My name is Imam Omar Suleiman. I am the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and serve in a voluntary capacity as the resident scholar at the Valley Ranch Islamic Center here in Dallas, Texas. My community here in Dallas, Texas, has dealt with regular armed white supremacist protests in front of our mosques. And that's been going on for years. And the sad thing about what happened in New Zealand is that no one was surprised that it happened. They were just surprised that it happened in Christchurch, New Zealand. Sadly, we've kind of been bracing ourselves for an attack of that sort here in Texas for a very long time.

The worst part about it for me - I mean, the moment that strikes me - and I tend to always see things through the eyes of my kids. When Pittsburgh happened, we all went to the synagogue together that evening. And when Christchurch happened, my kids' Islamic school had a lockdown the next day. And these poor kids were terrified because they thought that the Christchurch shooter had come to their school. And so having that conversation with my 9-year-old daughter was extremely difficult.

And so the one safe space is the mosque. That's the place where we get to be us. That's the place where our kids get to run around, not have to worry about how they look or what they're saying. And not only are they finding safety and security and happiness in their mosque spaces, in their Muslim spaces, but they're able to take that happiness and translate it into confidence when they leave those spaces back into places of hostility.

The way that we've beefed up security is that we have armed security throughout all of our services, multiple people monitoring different access points of the mosque. So at First United Methodist Church in Dallas, which is the largest Methodist Church here - actually trained our mosque's volunteers and staff on how to maintain good security practices while also being welcoming. I mean, that was beautiful. It was solidarity. And, you know, I think we're trying to create a culture. So we would hate to become an unwelcoming space. We're cautious. Our security guards are obviously alert. Our congregation is alert. But when you walk into our mosque, you're getting a big hug.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Imam Omar Suleiman. We also heard from Rabbi Toba Schaller and Reverend Ronell Howard from Piscataway, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.