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In the Midst of Tragedy, God Is with Us

June 25, 2015

Dear Friend of Israel,

Last Thursday night, 21-year-old Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat in on a Bible study gathering for an hour, then opened fire on the attendees, killing nine people, including the church’s pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney.

By the weekend, the motivation for the attack became chillingly clear when a website registered in Roof’s name was discovered. The site contains dozens of photographs of Roof posing with confederate flags, at slavery museums, and wearing a t-shirt sporting the number 88, which is white supremacist code for “Heil Hitler.” The site also contained a 2,500-word hate-filled manifesto in which Roof called African-Americans inferior and claimed, “I chose Charleston because it is the most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

As disturbing as his words and his actions are, they are not a new phenomenon. There is a long, tragic history of violence against black churches in America. Perhaps what is most disturbing is that these kinds of tragedies are still happening, perpetrated by a new generation filled with racially motivated hate. When this racism is carried out in a church, it seems especially heinous.

As someone who has for decades worked hand-in-hand with African American Christians, many of them pastors and other leaders I so respect and admire, I weep with these friends who have suffered terrible losses for senseless reasons. And I can identify with the fear that ensues whenever people from this community attend church services in the weeks and months to come. Synagogues have also been the target of hate and violence over the years – from spray-painted swastikas on churches, to an attack with knives and guns in an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem late last year. During the High Holy Days, the most sacred season of the year for Jews, synagogues in my community in Chicago are surrounded by a strong police presence, reminding us of past attacks – and present danger.

As much as I have been sickened by this attack, I have been equally moved by the responses of those affected. This past Sunday, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was filled with the faithful listening to a strong message about love, recovery, and healing. Reverend John H. Gillison, who delivered the sermon, said of the nine who died, “There they were in the house of the Lord, studying your word, praying with one another. But the devil also entered, and the devil was trying to take charge. Thanks be to God the devil cannot take control of your people. The devil cannot take control of your church.”

Prior to the service Malcolm Graham, younger brother of Cynthia Hurd, one of the nine killed in their church, said, “Sunday will not be a sad day for me; it will be a celebration for me. It will be a celebration for our family because our faith is being tested. She was in the company of God trying to help somebody out. She was where she needed to be.”

Reverend Brandon Bowers, a white pastor of another Charleston church, said, “As a pastor in this city, a husband, and a father to two boys and two girls, my heart broke in grief and disbelief. What the enemy intended for evil, God is using for good. We are here to pray for the healing that needs to come.” In Charleston – a city nicknamed the Holy City because of the large number of churches – a large banner hangs from a building near Emanuel reading, “Holy City ... Let Us Be the Example of Love That Conquers Evil.”

These strong words of faith move me, and, I think, point us all to an appropriate response to such unthinkable hate. In a historic South Carolina church named Emanuel, which in Hebrew means “God with us,” I see the faithful focused on His presence instead of the presence of evil. May all of us, Christians and Jews alike, follow this inspiring lead.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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