Nation

‘Not again’: Tragedies unite Charleston pastor and Pittsburgh rabbi

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers (left) of the Tree of Life congregation embraced Rev. Eric S.C. Manning of Charleston, S.C.
Hilary Swift/The New York Times
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers (left) of the Tree of Life congregation embraced Rev. Eric S.C. Manning of Charleston, S.C.

PITTSBURGH — An African Methodist pastor, dressed in a dark suit and white clerical collar, greeted a Conservative rabbi, wearing a black overcoat and matching fedora, in the lobby of a downtown hotel Friday morning. They spread their arms wide and embraced at length, the rabbi patting the pastor rhythmically on the back as the pastor drew him close. Words were not necessary.

The two men had never met, but for a week they have been bound by the unspeakable grief of two unconscionable desecrations. The pastor was the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, who leads the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., where nine parishioners were shot to death in a racist attack during a Wednesday night Bible study on June 17, 2015. The rabbi was Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where 11 worshipers were gunned down during shabbat services last Saturday.

When a virulent anti-Semite walked through unlocked doors into a house of God that morning and opened fire on believers in prayer, the analogies to the massacre at Emanuel AME church became inescapable. Here within 40 months were two ruthlessly murderous attacks in the most sacred of spaces, victimizing minority communities — one racial, one religious — that share a centuries-long struggle against bigotry and persecution.

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In both instances, the gunmen left a cache of hate-filled online commentary and eagerly volunteered their motives.

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“I have to do this,” Dylann Roof, who was 21 at the time, told his African-American victims in Emanuel’s fellowship hall as he fired 77 shots from a Glock semi-automatic handgun, “because y’all are raping our women and y’all are taking over our world,” according to survivors who testified at his 2016 trial.

Shortly before the assault on the synagogue, which police say involved four weapons, including a Glock .357, Robert Bowers, 46, explained himself in a social media post. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” he wrote. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” After his surrender, he told a SWAT officer that he “wanted all Jews to die” because they “were committing genocide against his people,” according to a criminal complaint.

Despite what probably will be overwhelming physical and witness evidence, Bowers pleaded not guilty Thursday to 44 federal counts, including hate crimes that will carry a possible death sentence if, as pledged, the Justice Department pursues it. Like Roof, who was convicted and sentenced to death, Bowers requested a jury trial.

Manning heard about the Pittsburgh shootings last Saturday morning when his smartphone vibrated with a news alert. He was at Emanuel, participating in a panel discussion about the Charleston massacre for a visiting group of young lawyers. His heart sank.

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“Not again,” he recalled thinking.

He had become Emanuel’s pastor in January 2016, tasked with the complex job of healing a deeply wounded church, which now attracts large numbers of out-of-town visitors. He filled the pulpit once occupied by the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, the first person shot by Roof. (As it happens, Pinckney, named for the legendary Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente, was a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan.)

As Emanuel’s 9:30 a.m. service began last Sunday, Manning arranged for the church bell to peal 11 times in honor of Pittsburgh’s dead, just as it had nine times in 2015 in tribute to Charleston’s fallen. He structured his sermon around Proverbs 18:21 — “the tongue has the power of life and death” — and emphasized that “the words that come out of your mouth can do much harm and/or much good.”

He did not hold President Trump — whom he refers to as “45” — directly responsible for inciting violence. But he referred pointedly to the president’s “undercurrents and untruths.” And he contrasted the powerful eulogy against hate delivered by former president Barack Obama after the Emanuel tragedy with Trump’s instant response that the killings could have been prevented if the synagogue had had armed guards.

By Sunday afternoon, Manning knew he wanted to be in Pittsburgh, to lend solidarity, to offer solace and advice, to practice what he calls a “ministry of presence.” He and his wife flew up Thursday night, and on Friday he met for two hours with Myers in the hotel coffee shop.

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The rabbi invited him to speak Friday afternoon at the last of 11 funerals over four days, for 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, the oldest of the victims. He read from the 23rd Psalm.

The killings in Charleston became a national touchstone not only because they evinced such a shocking level of indiscriminate violence. Also central to the moment were the spontaneous expressions of forgiveness for the killer expressed by some victims’ family members, at a bond hearing only two days after the attack.

Their views were not shared by all in Charleston or in the church, or even within their families. But their demonstrations of Christian grace moved people around the world.

“I was so overpowered by that,” Rabbi Chuck Diamond, who retired from the Tree of Life synagogue two years ago, remembered this week. “I was so impressed, and kind of wished I could be that good.”

Diamond and other leaders here said there has not been much talk of forgiveness for the synagogue gunman within Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

“Quite the contrary,” said Rabbi Danny Schiff, an ethicist and the foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “All the Jews I’m in contact with regard him as a person who is beneath contempt.”

Jews interviewed here said they had been too busy burying the dead, and trekking from shiva to shiva, to devote much thought to the killer. But Jewish theologians also explained that their tradition, rooted more in the retributive justice of the Old Testament than the turn-the-cheek ethos of the New Testament, takes a different approach to forgiveness.

Under the guidelines for repentance, or teshuvah, when man sins against God, say by violating rules of the Sabbath, he may seek forgiveness through confession and prayer. But when man sins against man, the offender must seek and receive forgiveness from the victim, after making restitution.

“Once the victim is not around anymore, that becomes impossible,” Schiff said. “And we have an individual who was yelling ‘All Jews must die,’ and when taken into custody continued to yell anti-Semitic slurs. There’s not the slightest indication that he would even seek forgiveness.”

The rituals of the aftermath in Pittsburgh seemed sickeningly familiar all week. The sidewalk memorials of flowers and hand-scribbled messages. The nightmarish logistics of planning so many funerals. The initial court appearances by defiantly unrepentant perpetrators. The street demonstrations, the presidential visits, the gun control debates. The utter emotional and physical exhaustion.

“I think I slept three hours last night,” Myers told Manning as they sat down for breakfast. “As you can appreciate, the brain does not switch off.”

The men talked about how to provide for a devastated congregation, how to handle the onslaught of media requests, how to balance the demands of an ongoing police investigation with the need to restore, if not normalcy, at least some sense of order. Manning offered Myers an Emmanuel Nine commemorative pin, which he attached to his lapel.

They now had too much in common. “This incident, like at Emanuel, was not an attack on a particular group,” the rabbi said at the close of the meeting. “It was an attack on America because it challenges our right to assemble and worship our God in the way we want. It has continued a downward spiral of hate, one that’s prevalent in all corners of the United States.”