Church service on a Thursday night—it’s not the usual, but neither was the catastrophic event that occurred at another place of worship just 11 days ago.
A man, filled with hate, is alleged to have entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill and kill 11 innocent people, wounding six more, including four police officers who rushed to the scene to stop the shooter.
October 27, 2018 is a day that Pittsburghers—and many across this country—will never forget.
The Pittsburgh-West Virginia Annual Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church wanted to remind its members, non-members, Jewish community and the entire Pittsburgh community that especially in times of crisis, in times of pain, there is unity.
On Thursday night, Nov. 1, the doors of the historic Bethel AME Church in the Hill District were open, open to all, for a Unity Prayer Service for the 11 victims of the Tree of Life mass shooting.
“This week, though we have suffered, you have stood with us,” said Rabbi Jamie Gibson, Senior Rabbi at Temple Sinai, during a press conference inside the church before the service, surrounded by Black ministers and members of the Islamic community. “Not only to dry our tears, but to cry with us.”
“In the City of Pittsburgh we see lots of development of buildings taking place,” said Imam Hamza Perez of the Light of the Age mosque. “But with this tragedy, what you’re seeing is the building of humanity. We stand here today united against White supremacy, we stand here today against atrocities done not only here in Pittsburgh, but also in Kentucky, to the African American couple who was gunned down. We stand here as human beings under one God.”
A day prior, Rodman Street Baptist Church in East Liberty was home to a similar interfaith service sponsored by the East End Baptist Fellowship and Homewood Community Ministries.
The 150 people who attended the Unity Prayer Service at Bethel AME, Nov. 1, had various reactions to the speakers. Some had arms raised. Others shouted. There were bursts of applause. And there was plenty of singing. All attendees joined in repeating the final sentence of this special service’s Call to Worship: “We are directed, dedicated and determined to press on, because love and unity are stronger than hate! We are striving for unity in the community.”
The crowd heard words from AME Church Third Episcopal District Senior Bishop McKinley Young, who prayed that “God will bring us to a new space which cannot yet be seen, but we do believe that it is there. And that God will take us there by his grace and mercy, where no one will hunger, no one will be harmed, no one will be destroyed, and our life will be enhanced and embraced.”
Reverend Stanley C. Dennison, representing the AME Zion Church, told the crowd that “we’re leaders, we’re Pittsburghers, and we are people of unique perspective on scriptures—still, we stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters in calling for love rather than hate, unity rather than division, and justice rather than revenge.”
NAACP President Richard A. Stewart Jr. told congregants, “This is personal.”
He told the story of living in the Hill District as a youngster, his godparents, who were Jewish, living next door. “They helped raise me, they guided me, took care of me, so this is personal.”
Stewart also reminded the crowd that “a lot of Jewish folks in New York started the NAACP. They walked with us, they marched with us, they died with us. They went down South with us.”
The alleged gunman, Robert Bowers of Baldwin Borough, was heard by police officers responding to the synagogue that “he wanted to kill Jews.”
State Rep. Ed Gainey said, in effect, there’s the problem. “So many times we see people based on their color, their gender, their sexual orientation, their religion, that we never look into the heart and see the person that they are, and what we end up doing is dividing ourselves.”
Representative Gainey kept the inspiring words coming, to thunderous applause.
“If we don’t love each other every day, then we can’t use the universal principle that makes sure that we win. And there’s only one way that we win—when love conquers hate.”
Then, the crowd stood in unison, opened their hymnals and sang #513—“Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand.”
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