By Ben Tinsley
FORT WORTH — More than 600 people — Jews, Muslims and Christians alike — joined together at Broadway Baptist Church on June 30 for an interfaith remembrance service in honor of the nine black worshipers who were shot and killed June 17 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.
The service specifically focused on the importance of healing and understanding in the wake of this and other continued tragedies. In the week after the shootings, for instance, a string of churches with predominantly black congregations in five Southern states burned — most investigated as arson.
“People are saddened with the fact that bad things happen but hopeful in that we can unite and support one another,” Bob Goldberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, said after the ceremony.
The United States Department of Justice is investigating the possibility that the shooting was a hate crime committed by 21-year-old suspect Dylann Roof.
During her comments at the ceremony, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said this tragedy, and the possible racial factors that motivated it, is unthinkable.
“There is no room for hatred or racism,” she said.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was one of the United States’ oldest black churches and a longtime site for community organization around civil rights — a point not lost on the interfaith audience.
Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger of Beth-El Congregation (who spoke during the ceremony) said afterward that the Charleston attack could have been dismissed as the deed of one troubled person.
“But coming in the wake of a series of unarmed black men being killed by police, and now in the midst of a series of African-American churches being torched, it properly took on symbolic significance,” the rabbi said. “Despite progress in recent decades, America still has a major racism problem which we ignore at our peril. Each of these attacks is an attack not only on the victim or victims, but on our religious values and the American social contract, our way of life.”
Cheryl Kimberling, president of the Multicultural Alliance in Fort Worth, which organized the event, had the same sentiment.
“We feel that there is a vibrant and identifiable interfaith community and we collectively stand together against religious and racial violence,” Kimberling said. “We gathered as an interreligious community to remember the nine victims and to affirm that any attack of this sort violates worship in any faith tradition. We hoped that the service not only invited people to join the dialogue, but that they will create the dialogue.”
Ayesha Shafi, a Muslim who is program director for Radio Azad and was one of the speakers at the event, said it was a beautiful and poignant interfaith memorial.
“It was a moving remembrance of the nine lives lost to senseless hate,” Shafi said. “As I looked from the podium, it was quite full. And it was filled with Americans of all kinds — whites, blacks and browns; Christians, Jews, and Muslims; men and women; young and old; native-born and immigrants. It was a wonderful representation of our nation.”
Shafi added that what happened in Charleston was a heinous act.
“Its aftermath opens the door to the important dialogue about living in harmony among diversity,” Shafi said. “The overwhelming sentiments that evening at Broadway Baptist Church were that of overcoming our differences to find solace in one another. That regardless of our faith or skin color we connect on a human level with one another. July 4th is a reminder that the foundation of our nation is that all men are created equal, with the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The events of South Carolina remind us that we must continue to strive for those rights for all.”
The Rev. Brent Beasley, pastor of Broadway, and the Rev. Charles Robinson of Meadowbrook United Methodist Church also spoke during the ceremony.
Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger said the large crowd and its notable diversity — Christians, Jews and Muslims, black, white and Hispanic, and with Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price as well as clergy on the program — was an important statement.
“It was clear to me from lots of feedback before and after the service that members of all these groups were pleased and proud that it happened,” Rabbi Mecklenburger said.
“I would add personally that I found the service, aesthetically and spiritually, a success. I, and I have no doubt lots of others, found it moving and uplifting.”