We shall overcome

Texas church massacre a painful reminder for worshippers hurt by gun violence

Posted: November 11, 2017 at 1:55 a.m.

OAK CREEK, Wis. -- The worshippers, hundreds of them, had gathered Sunday for the afternoon meal in the vast, bright dining hall at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, just as they do every Sunday.

But before long, the happy din of the congregants was interrupted by a grim bulletin from Texas. People pushed away their plates of cauliflower and rice as the horrific news chirped across their cellphones. A gunman in a house of God. Multiple fatalities. Multiple injuries.

The Sikh temple was 1,300 miles and worlds away from First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. But at the temple, where a mass shooting left six dead five years ago, it felt sickeningly familiar, as it had at congregations in South Carolina and Tennessee and New York -- places on the list of religious congregations that have become victims of gun violence. As different as they are, they share both a tragic past and a continuing struggle to move beyond it.

"Every time this happens, we feel the pain again," said Harjinder Singh, a priest, as he sat in the quiet temple Tuesday. "It is like when you have a bandage on your body, and it is ripped away."

In a nation awash in guns, houses of worship in recent years have been the setting for numerous fatal shootings, including an attack by a white supremacist in 2015 at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., that left nine people dead.

As the news of Sunday's massacre sunk in, there was a queasy feeling of solidarity in these sacred but violated spaces. Their leaders knew that the members of First Baptist Church would soon be forced to partake in new rituals and ask new questions about maintaining security and a welcoming spirit.

They knew that the answers could not be perfect. And they knew that the Texans would feel the violation in their bones.

"Church may be one of our last places of refuge. Now it's as if that is even being challenged," said Joey Spann, the pastor of Burnette Chapel Church of Christ near Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday. Spann was shot in the hand and chest Sept. 24. That Sunday, a 25-year-old former congregant waited in the parking lot for people to leave the morning service then opened fire, killing a mother of two and injuring seven others.

Such violence, Spann said, "won't overcome the church, the Bible promises us that. But it seems like even that place of refuge is being taken from us."

Violent attacks at houses of worship are not new. White Southerners opposed to racial integration bombed a number of black churches in the Deep South in the 1950s and '60s. Most infamous was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, which killed four young girls.

But violence has escalated in recent years. The suspect in the attack at Spann's church in Nashville, who as a child came to this country as a refugee from Sudan, left a note in his car referring to Dylann Roof, the white man who killed nine black people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

In the five years since the attack on the Sikh temple, by an Army veteran with ties to white supremacist groups, its worshippers have done their best to move forward. They forgave the assailant, Wade Page, "that very day," Singh said. They have strengthened their bonds with members of the community, a mostly white, working-class town of 36,000 along the shore of Lake Michigan.

Willi Glee, 77, a member of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, believes that for some attackers, religious spaces offer an added attraction because defiling them is the ultimate taboo.

"The killer thinks he gets the most dramatic effect from that," Glee said. "Because everybody expects that a house of worship is a safe place."

At Emanuel, a bedrock of Charleston that was founded in 1791, doors once left open are now locked. Visitors are allowed in after they announce their presence over an intercom system. Strangers' bags are checked before services. A cast of retired military and on- and off-duty police officers remains vigilant.

Something similar happened at the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid, a mosque in New York. A little more than a year ago, the imam, Alauddin Akonjee, 55, and his assistant, Thara Miah, 64, were shot dead after leaving afternoon prayers on a busy street close to the mosque.

A suspect, Oscar Morel, was later brought into custody, before pleading not guilty to murder charges. Since the shooting, surveillance cameras have been set up around the mosque's perimeter, and the local police precinct has been made aware of prayer times. Inside, vigilance is encouraged.

"We tell the people: 'When you come inside, turn right and turn left,'" said Bazlur Rahman, 51, an official of the mosque, after afternoon prayers Tuesday. "'If you see someone suspicious -- someone who is unknown to the community -- tell us.'"

Inside the Sikh temple, there is another struggle. Family members of the people who were killed still come to worship, despite the lingering trauma. Of the nearly 500 people at the Sikh temple who regularly arrive for Sunday services, many still worry that they are vulnerable to another attack.

"If it happens one time, people are afraid that it will happen again," Singh said.

In Charleston, the fear also lingers. In court testimony in January, Felicia Sanders, who witnessed the massacre there, described in aching terms how the shooting had haunted her.

"I can't hear something as small as an acorn drop from out of a tree," Sanders, the mother of one of the victims, said during the sentencing hearing for Roof, the gunman. "Most importantly, I cannot shut my eye to pray. I cannot shut my eye to pray. Even when I try, I cannot because I have to keep my eye on everyone that is around me. That is a sad day."

There have also been good days -- and stories of adaptation, transformation, healing and hope. Emanuel has become a site of pilgrimage for people around the world, including white Americans seeking communion with and forgiveness from their black neighbors.

At St. Peters Missionary Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio, the Rev. William Schooler was fatally shot by his brother in February 2016 during a service. On Tuesday, Alberta Blayth, the church secretary, said that the incident had bound the congregants more tightly. "We are closer," she said. "Let's keep praying these things stop."

In Tennessee, Spann said his little church had in many ways been rejuvenated since the shooting. Sunday morning is now a celebration, a gathering of people who understand each other.

"A lot of good has come out of this," he said. "The church is tighter, expresses love easier."

He acknowledged the differences between what happened at Burnette Chapel and in Sutherland Springs. The sheer scale of death at the church in Texas, the murder of so many children and the smallness of the community will make it harder for them and will perhaps be a stronger test of faith.

But both congregations have learned firsthand that there is darkness in the world, as much as people may want to deny it.

"It's always going to be in front of you," he said, referring to the memory of such shootings. "It's always going to be discussed, it's always going to be on your mind. But so will God's grace and God's mercy and God's strength."

Religion on 11/11/2017