I’m at the Starbucks at the corner of Forbes and Shady. I walked here from my home in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. On the way I passed two very grand synagogues. If I’d walked a few blocks further I’d be at the Tree of Life.
I wore black. During services Saturday a man entered the Tree of Life synagogue and murdered 11 people.
Many mornings I would instead be one block down Forbes at the Jewish Community Center — I walk the track and write, telling stories into a digital audio recorder. But today the JCC is closed. The FBI and trauma responders are using the space as a base for investigation and comforting the grieving.
There is often a crowd of teens here before and after school, hanging out on their way to or from one of the Jewish high schools, Hillel Academy I think, but I’m not sure. I enjoy seeing them. I’m sure they have all the ordinary problems, but they always look squeaky clean and full of hope.
Today instead there is a group in uniform shirts, jackets, and backpacks with logos reading “United Hatzalah.” Some wear Israeli flag patches, though others are from Cleveland or elsewhere. They are volunteers providing emergency services to the community.
They’ve come a long way to help.
Look for the helpers,” said Mr. Rogers.
When the unspeakable happens, when the world seems askew because the holy has been desecrated, there will be people trying to help.
Light will shine even in the midst of darkness. That doesn’t take the horror away, but it helps you get through it.
My son and I were across the river when it happened.
I picked up two references to an “active shooter in Squirrel Hill” on social media. I called my wife to make sure she and my daughter were safe.
I kid you not, she and our daughter were sitting on the couch watching an old episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
When we moved here, one selling point for the kids was that we were moving into Mr. Rogers’ actual neighborhood. That’s right — the Presbyterian saint of kindness and gentle love lived in Squirrel Hill.
So in addition to the unfolding story of yet another mass shooting, yet another hate crime, yet another act of anti-Semitism, there was the surreal irony that it happened in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
That surreal irony, however, is the least of the problems.
- There are 11 people dead.
- There are the shattered congregations who meet to worship and pray in Tree of Life.
- There are all the many other Jewish congregations in Pittsburgh.
- There are the many Jewish people in the city who are disconnected from faith communities.
- There are the countless Jewish communities and individuals around the world.
All of them must be shaken, feeling the grief of such an act of hate. I imagine it is hard work to deal with the fear.
If someone is moved to come into that place of worship and kill, don’t the people in this place of worship have to wonder if we are next?
And it is not only the Jewish community that is wounded by this act.
Every community that suffers for being different from other communities gets another brick added to the wall of fear. Might they not be next? After all, you don’t have to look too far into the past to find massacres in churches, mosques, temples, nightclubs…
It goes beyond the Mr. Rogers irony to deep desecration:
- The Jews are people deeply concerned with living according to God’s good and holy law.
- “Thou shalt not kill” is up there in the Top Ten.
Then comes Saturday, and a man is so twisted up with hate that he comes into
- a place devoted to worshipping the God who said “Thou shalt not kill,”
- finds people who are living by the law “Thou shalt not kill,”
- and he kills them.
Those days 2000 years ago
There are people, it seems, who give themselves over to darkness and evil. Or perhaps darkness and evil have taken them over — back in Jesus’ day he encountered many who were “possessed by evil spirits.”
We Christians tend to dumb this down a bit. Some of us talk about “spiritual warfare,” but we think it is about tiny little things.
One time some people looked at Jesus’ acts of love, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming outcasts, and casting out demons, and they said he did those things by the power of Satan.
They looked at true goodness and called it evil.
That’s when Jesus spoke of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” and seemed to say it was beyond forgiveness.
Let’s at least expand our concept of “spiritual warfare” to include people who set out to hurt others with everything from words on the internet to automatic weapons.
The world is not all black and white. But growing in God’s image and likeness includes learning to distinguish good from evil.
And people who confuse the two, mistaking their own acts of evil for good, are in a terrible state indeed.
I’ll tell you something that gave me hope.
Saturday evening, less than twelve hours after the murders, there was a vigil at the corner of Forbes and Murray, the center of Squirrel Hill’s “downtown.” It was organized by Jewish teenagers from the neighborhood’s public high school, Taylor Allderdice.
We were there, a few feet from where the photo was taken, with a crowd estimated in the thousands.
The kids’ words were heartfelt. Not polished. Eloquent in their simplicity. Grieving, wanting to do something to help. Wanting not to be alone.
Then they did an amazing thing.
It was sundown up above the drizzling clouds. That marked the end of the Sabbath, the turn from holy time to the ordinary week. They said they were going to do what all observant Jews do at that time: the ritual called “Havdalah,” the leave taking of the Sabbath.
So there, with a crowd that surely included hundreds of non-Jews, they sang the Hebrew songs of Havdalah. We sang along with them, as best we could.
It was beautiful as an act of courage.
On a day when 11 were killed for doing what Jews do, these high schoolers stood up and showed that no one would stop them from being Jews. Out in front of the world, no matter what the world thought, they sang their love for God and neighbor.
It was beautiful as an act of hospitality.
While Jews have historically often been shoved away into ghettos, and when one could not possibly blame them for hunkering down away from society, these teenagers invited the world in. We non-Jews were drawn into the song, blessed along with the Jewish community for Sabbath rest and the workweek ahead.
The next morning I walked with my family into a Christian church, late as usual, while the congregation sang Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”
I found my place in the hymnal just in time to join the final verse,
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His Kingdom is forever.
I sang it loud, as a protest against the darkness, with a heavy heart and a quavering voice.
So let’s stick to loving our neighbors, okay? Like instead of killing them.
Maybe we could even commit to only speaking in loving ways on social media.