‘Hatred is strong, but we’re stronger’: Wichita faith community advocates for love

Rabbi Michael Davis lights 11 candles during a community-wide prayer service at Congregation Emanu-El in Wichita to honor the 11 Jewish people who were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Rabbi Michael Davis lights 11 candles during a community-wide prayer service at Congregation Emanu-El in Wichita to honor the 11 Jewish people who were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday. The Wichita Eagle

Four months ago, he was at a bar mitzvah in Pittsburgh, and they hugged.

On Saturday, she was shot and killed while worshiping at her synagogue.

“If anybody would have told me 40 or 50 years ago that I’d be here 1,000 miles away from Pittsburgh memorializing her in this community because she had been killed by senseless hatred, she would have thought we were all crazy,” said Scott Wagner, president-elect of Congregation Emanu-El. “Even 10 years ago none of us would have thought that.”

Rose Mallinger, 97, was one of 11 people killed in a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Wagner said he grew up in the same Squirrel Hill neighborhood and attended the same synagogue. His bar mitzvah was there.

On Thursday, about 250 people gathered for an interfaith service at Congregation Emanu-el.

Rabbi Michael Davis said a havdalah candle — a single candle woven from many others — symbolized how the interfaith community in Wichita came together. He used the havdalah candle to light 11 memorial candles for the 11 victims of Saturday’s shooting in Pittsburgh.

“Hatred is strong, but we’re stronger,” Davis said.

The alleged shooter, Robert Bowers, was charged Wednesday with 44 crimes, the Department of Justice has said. The charges include 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death.

Bowers allegedly drove to the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, entered the building armed with multiple guns and opened fire, according to a federal indictment. Two members of the congregation were critically injured and 11 were killed. Four law enforcement officers were injured. While inside the house of worship, Bowers allegedly said he desired to “kill Jews.”

“We’re not here to say what happened in Pittsburgh last weekend must never happen to Jews again,” said Rabbi Judah Kogen, of Ahavat Achim Hebrew Congregation. “We’re not here to just say that. We’re here to say that no faith group should ever be in jeopardy in their sacred places. What happened in the synagogue in Pittsburgh must never happen in any house of worship to any faith group.”

If convicted, Bowers faces a maximum penalty of death or life without parole, the Department of Justice has said. He has pleaded not guilty.

Hussam Madi, of the Islamic Society of Wichita, sang a song at Thursday’s service.

“Life is sacred,” Madi said of the song’s meaning. “From any human being to any human being, no one owns the right to take this life, except the one and only that put it in this physical being and body — that is God.”

Bishop Wade Moore was born Sept. 15, 1963. That was also the day of the first killing in a house of worship in his lifetime, he said. Four black girls were killed when dynamite set by the Ku Klux Klan exploded under the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

Martin Luther King Jr. brought people of different backgrounds together during the Civil Rights movement, said Moore, of the Christian Faith Centre.

“God is calling us again to lock arms and to stand with each other,” he said. “I believe that God would tell us that as long as we remain human for us to never unlock those arms because evil is out there and it can find its way anywhere.”

Rev. Kara Courtney, of Pine Valley Christian Church, said fear exists and that she is “sorry that we have to hire officers to protect our worship spaces.” At least two uniformed Wichita police officers were at the service.

“I can see a beginning, and I think many of you see it as well,” Courtney said. “If we really want to try to change the world and stop the hate that is tearing us apart, we must recognize that there is fear and terror present in our lives. But what matters is how we respond.

“We can give into the terror that these people have sought to inflict upon us. We can build walls, surround ourselves with armed guards, with armed teachers, with hatred. Or we can respond with bravery, which in my faith requires us to recognize our fear but be led instead with love.”

Pastor Mark Hoover, of New Spring Church, said people from different backgrounds must speak with and listen to each other.

“We speak of tolerance today, and tolerance is a good thing, but I believe we have to go beyond that,” he said.

Pastor Alan Stucky, of First Church of the Brethren, said that hate and fear are not new to the world.

“While we might be tempted to look for someone to blame in any given moment, the way that we truly repent is to start walking in the other direction,” he said. ... To create alternative examples of how we might live together in this world. We do not simply stand against what is wrong, although we must do that. We must also be living examples of what is right.”

Rev. Sam Muyskens, of Global Faith in Action, also said that love can overcome hate.

“I’ll be honest, but I do not understand how people can hate so deeply,” Muyskens said. “I do not understand how one human could devaluate the lives of others so much that he would kill. But what keeps me going is I do understand the power of love. I do believe that while we’re on Earth that love and kindness and respect have the power to overcome hate.

“Hate. I have seen it. I have experienced it. But I’ve also experienced love, over and over again — and I know it works.”

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