by Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl, Emeritus, Temple Beth-El, San Antonio, Texas
Every Abrahamic faith community in the past few years has painfully learned that its places of worship are no longer safe and secure sanctuaries. Assailants have no respect for sacred spaces and have no inhibitions about unleashing hatred and violence against innocent people at prayer.
First, it was an African-American Christian church in Charleston, South Carolina. Then, it was an all-white Christian church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Then, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and more recently, two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Almost all of them were victims of white supremacists, who roundly reject the belief that God has created a diversity of human beings, with different beliefs, skin colors, ethnic origins and sexual orientations and that God wants us to celebrate these differences.
However, even from these tragedies, we have been able to wrest a blessing, especially in San Antonio. Last fall, after the heinous murders at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, close to 1500 people from across the city gathered at Temple Beth-El to render support and succor to our local mourning Jewish community.
Then, on Saturday night, March 24, people of all faiths assembled at Main Plaza, in front of San Fernando Cathedral, which I believe is the central religious address of San Antonio. Hundreds were there to join in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters in their time of pain resulting from the massacres of their co-religionists in Christchurch.
This tragedy held personal significance for my wife, Lynn, and me, since we had just returned from visiting New Zealand less than a month before. We had been deeply impressed by the warmth and graciousness of its people, their peace-loving nature, and their enthusiastic embrace of human differences.
At the vigil, leaders from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith communities led a moving ceremony, together with government leaders, like Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Congressman Joaquin Castro. Those of us who attended heard a message transmitted through the mobile phone of Imam Beytullah Colak from one who survived the New Zealand massacres.
When the murderer opened fire, this survivor, identified only as Serdar R., reported that he had hid beyond a partition in the mosque. He had no recollection of anyone’s screaming. The worshippers appeared calm and composed, as they rendered verses from the Koran.
One of the most stirring speakers at the vigil was Gina Ortiz Jones, who had been a candidate for the District 23 seat in the U. S. House of Representatives. She emphasized that when she attends her church, she expects to feel safe and not gunned down. She challenged the crowd to speak out against racism and bigotry, especially Islamophobia.
Today, Islamophobia has become especially virulent. Many prominent religious leaders are now spreading obscenities about the faith of Islam and their ugly words go unchecked.
One of these leaders repeatedly charges that the Muslim religion is “wicked, violent, and not of the same God.” He argues that the Koran sanctions hating and killing people who are not Muslim.
When asked to modify or retract his accusations against Islam, he has steadfastly refused, for fear that he would be compromising his principles. Instead, he repeats his foul claim that Islam is evil. Similar poisonous words about Islam also spew forth from the mouths of other renowned clerics, as well. This perverted perspective fortunately is rare among most San Antonians.
I am grateful for the decades-long tradition of religious harmony and solidarity we enjoy in San Antonio. I especially am proud that the newly-formed ISAA, Interfaith San Antonio Alliance, has succeeded in bringing together faith leaders from across the religious spectrum to collaborate on projects for the betterment of our city.
The vigil culminated in a post-sunset Muslim ritual, as representatives of scores of different faiths gathered behind our Islamic brothers and sisters to form a circle of oneness and protection. This holy act represented a most sublime expression of love for all of God’s children.