Interfaith services give comfort after Charleston shootings.
The nation was shocked when nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) Church in Charleston, S.C., were shot June 17 during a Bible study class. Dylann Roof, an adherent of white supremacy, who police say admitted to the killings, chose the oldest A.M.E. church in the South, one forced to close during the mid-1800s when African-American churches were banned in the area.
As Americans grappled with the brutal event, the leaders of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township and Greater New Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit quickly planned joint weekend services to express solidarity and hope.
The idea came from Bob Bruttell, chairman of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, who sought to foster solidarity and comfort among Detroit-area congregations. Seeking a faith group that would partner with an African American church, he focused on bringing together Jews and blacks.
“African Americans have experienced years of violence, and there have been any number of places where Jews are under attack,” he said. “Jews have the highest number of hate crimes committed against them, according to the FBI.”
He knew of the special relationship between Beth El and Greater New Mt. Moriah, fostered by the close 19-year friendship between Rabbi Daniel Syme and the Rev. Kenneth Flowers. Buttrell contacted Rabbi Mark Miller, Beth El’s lead rabbi since last year, and Flowers, asking them to conduct joint services — and they quickly agreed.
In only a day’s time, the two congregations, along with the Interfaith Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council, publicized the interfaith services to their own members and the general public.
Beth El’s Friday night outdoor service drew an unusually large turnout of about 225 individuals, including temple members as well as representatives of local Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Sikh congregations, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Interfaith Leadership Council.
The interfaith council is a faith-based civic organization that builds coalitions to tackle faith-based issues such as literacy and violence. The president of the Michigan Council of Rabbis is a standing member.
Many members of Flowers’ church had attended services at Beth El previously, but for others it was a first-time experience. Miller and Cantor Rachel Kalmowitz made special efforts to explain the prayers and encourage participation in the service.
Flowers is active in interfaith work locally and internationally and has traveled to Israel five times, including participation in an AIPAC African American Leaders Mission to Israel. At the Friday night service, he described Beth El and his church as “sister congregations.”
“This is a time for us to be together,” he said at the service. “Tonight our hearts are saddened. In the midst of the pain from Charleston, I still have hope. God is our refuge and strength. We must learn to work together with those who are different from us and form coalitions and alliances of friendship and goodwill …
That is why I am glad that members of the Jewish community are with us today. They, too, have a history of anti-Semitism and hatred against them. But they also have a rich history of working
together with the black community to combat racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry, hatred and violence against our communities, to fight for civil rights, human rights and peace and justice for all.”
His message resonated positively. Beth El member Margaret Start described the service as “very inspirational, wonderful and warm.” Deenie Hertz Zonder, daughter of Beth El’s late Rabbi Richard Hertz, was very encouraged by Flowers’ “message of hope.”
United, Not Divided
On Sunday, Miller visited Greater New Mt. Moriah Church. He was joined by his wife, Rachel, and their two young sons, along with Beth El’s President L. Steven Weiner, Kalmowitz and about 25 temple members, as well as others active in the interfaith community, including Heidi Budaj, regional ADL director, Kari Alterman, director of the American Jewish Committee, and interfaith activist Brenda Rosenberg.
In his sermon to the interfaith group, Miller said, “The world is filled with people telling us that we are different, judging us, dividing us. But this church, our synagogue and religious institutions across the land are here to remind us that all the things that unite us are much more than that which divides us — to remind us that we are, in fact, more alike than we are different.”
Joining arms, he and Flowers proclaimed their “oneness in standing together against evil.”
Miller “spoke beautifully,” said Raman Singh, president of the Interfaith Leadership Council and a member of Gurdwara Sahib Mata Tripta, a Sikh temple in Plymouth. She noted that Jews and Sikhs, as well as African-Americans, have been targets of recent violent attacks. “We need to be forging relationships especially to support each other when evil occurs,” she said.
Miller ended his Sunday sermon with thoughts about counteracting hatred.
“How do we respond to hatred? The same way we choose to live every day — in relationship — with good words on our tongue, with positive images surrounding us. And as we remember the Charleston Nine, I pray that we will stand united, not [just] today, but next week and next month and next year so that our strength will grow into that mighty stream of righteousness that we dream of for our children and grandchildren.”
By: Shari S. Cohen, Contributing Writer