We need safe spaces of worship

Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshall/MGN

Editor’s Note: This opinion piece was published prior to the California synagogue shooting on April 27 that left one dead and several others injured. Find developments on that shooting here.

The high holy holidays of Passover and Easter have concluded and Ramadan is in May. Attacks, however, on places of worship are becoming too frequent in this global climate of intolerance. As a worshiper, I need our president to make us safe.

The Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting in October 2018 that killed 11 people and injured three was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on the Jewish community in the country.

Last month, the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand were two consecutive terrorist attacks at mosques, killing 50 people and injuring over 50 more. The gunman, a self-described eco-fascist and ethno nationalist, live-streamed his first attack on Facebook Live.

When news broke this month that three historically African American Baptist churches had burned within 10 days in rural Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish, sadly, the horror was all too familiar. The only good news in these recent incidents is that there were no casualties.

Before the assailant was apprehended, none of the church burnings had been labeled as hate crimes, suggesting that the over 100-year-old churches were perhaps subject to accidental ignition due to old and crumbling infrastructures, faulty wiring, or thunderstorms that can cause power outages and occasional fires.

Instead, Holden Matthews, the son of St. Landry Parish’s sheriff deputy, was arrested as the arsonist, igniting a wave of panic throughout its Black community. Matthews, 21, is White. He was influenced by “black metal” music, a subgenre of heavy metal is known for its anti-Christian and demagogic rhetoric and promoting neo-Nazism.

While Matthews’ behavior is undoubtedly disturbing to its residents — both Black and White — his actions are not new.

The link between White supremacy and attacks on African American churches in this country has been both historically documented, and anecdotally known in Black communities.

For example, the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama killed four little African American girls. It is one of the iconic images of White supremacist domestic terrorism. Massachusetts, however, which is known as the bluest of blue states, proved that church burnings are not the sole province of the South.

Church burnings were one more persistent reminder why during antebellum America, hush harbors were places where my enslaved ancestors gathered in secret to worship. These recent fires remind me how African Americans’ desire for safe and sacred spaces — especially places of worship — continue to be challenged with acts violence. 

The Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield was burned just hours after Obama was elected that historic night of November 2008 as our country’s first African American president.

In 2015, African American church burnings occurred suspiciously in rapid succession following the Charleston Black church massacre, which left nine dead — including its senior pastor. The day before the church massacre, precisely 197 years prior, “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was burned to the ground due to the racial violence of a mob of White slave owners.

However, African Americans are not the only ones confronted with this challenge.

The roots of the Tree of Life massacre were White supremacy and anti-Semitism. When the gunman was apprehended by a SWAT officer he allegedly told him, he “wanted all Jews to die, and that Jews were committing genocide against his people.”

The roots of the Christchurch massacre were White supremacy and Islamophobia. The gunman praised President Trump in his 74-page manifesto posted online, in which he lauded Trump as a symbol “of renewed White identity and common purpose.”

This attack has our Muslim brothers and sisters on edge. Just blocks from me, the mosque in Cambridge was on 24-hour surveillance for fear of a copycat incident.

During a press conference, Trump was asked if he “see(s) today that White nationalism is a rising threat around the world” in the wake of mosques attacks in New Zealand.

“I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess,” Trump replied.

Trump’s statement reminded me of his repugnant “blame on both sides” comment about the Charlottesville mayhem that took place the summer of 2017. By condemning counter protesters similarly as White supremacists and swastika-wielding neo-Nazis at the rally, Trump suggested both groups were at fault, and one was equally in the wrong as the other. 

It is these type of statements that keep White supremacist terrorism alive, here and abroad, and our places of worship in danger.

Places of worship are supposed to be sanctuaries. Freedom of religion is guaranteed in our constitution, and it’s a freedom that should be upheld globally. With many of us approaching the high holy holidays these coming days and weeks ahead, nothing would be more comforting than knowing our places of worship are safe.