Two congregations linked by tragedy came together recently to support and encourage one another. Worshipers from Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, hoping to learn how to forgive and heal. Last October, 11 people were shot and killed at Tree of Life, and in June 2015, nine people were killed during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston.
Peg Durachko, whose husband was killed in the synagogue, came up with the idea to travel as a group to Charleston. “I remember, what really struck me was the ability of the people who were in (Mother Emanuel) to forgive so readily,” she says. “That intrigued me, and it actually drew me, because I wanted to learn forgiveness.” Durachko also wanted to hear about the path to healing and how families “dealt with the emotions and the heartache that they had to revisit” during court proceedings.
In Search of Healing and Peace
The delegation of 10 Pittsburgh travelers included members of New Life Congregation, which rents space at Tree of Life, and members of Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church, who’ve joined New Life worshipers for a Bible study on Proverbs, Martin Luther King Day services, and more.
Rev. Eric Manning, now the pastor at Mother Emanuel, invited the guests to the altar during a Sunday worship service. Their Charleston hosts surrounded them with hugs, tears and prayer. Manning told the Pittsburgh survivors, “This congregation understands what you have gone through… You are not alone in this journey. We will be here.”
The pastor acknowledges that Mother Emanuel is still recovering. “Our hearts go out to them because we know the road is long,” he says. During a question-and-answer session, Manning addressed survivors’ concerns ranging from what to do with a church building after a shooting to how to cope with the legal system.
Debi Slavin, whose brother was killed in Pittsburgh, says the “support was so healing.” Her sister, Carol Black, says their loss is so recent that she’s “still on the angry side of things” and “not prepared to forgive.”
Sharing Messages of Community and Love
Polly Sheppard, whose life was spared during the Charleston attack, told the Pittsburgh group they need to forgive. “It’s a choice,” she said. “Either you forgive or you don’t, but if you carry it with you, there’s no healing. It’s like acid on a battery. Once it builds up, the car won’t move.”
Beth Kissileff, whose husband is a rabbi at New Light, says visiting Charleston was “a way of taking control of the narrative, to say that both (congregations) were harmed by hate but that we, in turn, were sending a message of unity and of love.” Although church shootings are “life shattering,” she says, they “bring out an indescribable sense of strength and community that directly go against all the perpetrator’s main goals.”
The “baseless love” shown at Mother Emanuel helped Kissileff and her Pittsburgh friends eliminate the “baseless hate” they felt right after the shooting, she says. “The best and strongest way to turn away from hate is to promote love and turn toward it.”