Dilemma for houses of worship: Openness or safety?

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(RNS) — On a cold day, a stranger comes to the door of the sanctuary and asks for shelter. What should happen next?

The Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy says, “God loves the stranger, giving them food and garments.” The next verse goes on to tell us to do likewise: “Love therefore the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Christian New Testament, in Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” 

The Israelites’ experience of having been strangers and outsiders in their years of wandering and exile is the basis of a number of other injunctions in the Hebrew Bible: “Don’t oppress a stranger for you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” says the Book of Exodus. The treatment of strangers is so central to the Hebrew Bible that the word “stranger” appears in the text 92 times. 

In fact, the most grievous Jewish enemy throughout the Hebrew Bible, the nation of Amalek, is a group who, instead of welcoming the Jews passing through their land, attacks the sick and the elderly straggling at the rear, according to Deuteronomy. Jews try to differentiate themselves with compassion to others rather than harm to them.


RELATED: Synagogues forced to balance welcoming the stranger with protecting their own


Considering all this, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker did everything he should have done in welcoming Malik Faisal Akram into the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, and offering him a cup of tea on a 20-degree day. The rabbi has said he believed his obligation to treat another with kindness is a primary part of how he wishes to use his rabbinate.

Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, facing camera, hugs a man after a healing service Jan. 17, 2022, at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas. Cytron-Walker was one of four people held hostage by a gunman at his Colleyville, Texas, synagogue on Saturday. (Yffy Yossifor/Star-Telegram via AP, File)

Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, facing camera, hugs a man after a healing service Jan. 17, 2022, at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas. Cytron-Walker was one of four people held hostage by a gunman at his Colleyville, Texas, synagogue on Saturday. (Yffy Yossifor/Star-Telegram via AP, File)

On October 27, 2018, at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, where Kissileff’s husband, Jonathan Perlman, is the rabbi of the New Light Congregation, a man did not ask to be let in but shot his way through the doors with murderous intent and proceeded to kill 11 Jewish worshippers gathered to pray on the Sabbath. Some have speculated that the shooter chose the synagogue because of its complete lack of security. (Another theory is that Dor Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation that rented space at Tree of Life, held a Sabbath to promote the work of immigrant aid organization HIAS, and this welcome of immigrants infuriated him.)

But the two synagogue attacks show that welcoming someone into a shared common worship space needs to be balanced with the need to maintain safety and security.

Ten days prior to the attack on the Texas synagogue, Akram was asked to leave the nearby Islamic Center of Irving. According to CNN, “When Akram was refused the ability to sleep at the mosque because of city ordinances, ‘He became agitated and almost confrontational, telling the folks there that you’ll be judged by the Lord Almighty for, you know, not helping out a fellow Muslim brother,’ according to Khalid Hamideh, chief legal counsel of the Islamic Center of Irving.”

Yet, Akram went to another shelter and returned to pray without incident the next day. 

We wonder why the authorities had found it necessary to kill Akram after the hostages were safe and he was alone. Could they not have waited, continued to negotiate, arrested and handcuffed him with their advantage in numbers and firepower?

We do not know the details. But to have come so close to a resolution that did not involve bloodshed is surely to invite regret that it ended as it did. Even when a crime has been committed, a faithful response does not seek death but justice. No one abdicates their humanity by their actions. It is imprinted upon them by our creator. It is indelible, even when one is misguided, misled or made misanthropic by evil influence or intent.     

As importantly, we cannot use Akram’s attack as a reason to close our houses of worship or our hearts. The people who come to the door are not always angels, nor are they always strangers. What they have in common is that image of God, that breath of the Divine, animating them and challenging us to respond faithfully. We must engage with them as humans and not assume anyone unknown to us is an enemy, or we will miss out on the richness and variety of human connection. 

A law enforcement official stands patrol on a main road leading to Congregation Beth Israel synagogue where a man had held hostages for hours on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

A law enforcement official stands patrol on a main road leading to Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue where a man had held hostages for hours on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The chance we risk missing is captured in Jewish tradition by the figure of Elijah, the beloved prophet who was taken bodily in a chariot to heaven without apparent mortal death. Since he has not died, he is reputed to be able to reappear in various guises, as a stranger to those unaware of the provenance of the individual they are meeting. One does not know which stranger may be Elijah, and his shape-shifting enables Elijah to determine who is a person of genuine faith.

The history of these stories is recounted in a recent book, “Becoming Elijah: Prophet of Transformation,” by Daniel Matt. Matt quotes a story in the Talmud, Bava Batra 7b, about a pious man whom Elijah spoke to regularly. However, when the man built a gatehouse, Elijah stopped speaking to him. The reason? The gatehouse was built specifically to keep out the poor. 

One of us, Rosalind, is a pastor, and is used to strangers coming to the church door. She remembers the person who told her that the voices in their head were quieter in the church. Letting that stranger in enabled Rosalind to hear the message of someone who might have been a (slightly downcast) angel, bringing a message about the work that the church is to do — to hush the voices of violence and terror, to drown them out with prayers and praise, and the love that many waters cannot quench. (And yes, she made sure that the person was following up with health care professionals, too. Partnership is important between people as well as with the Divine.)

In the Christian tradition, it is written in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Can we overcome evil with the help of God? How far should we compromise with the ways of a violent world in order to make our way within it, and how far should we resist its hollow victories and insist instead on something more life-giving?

Seeing each other as fully human includes knowing that humans can harm others. Painful as it is, humans have free will to do evil. The need for security needs to be balanced with opportunity to engage compassionately with the stranger.


RELATED: As rabbi was held hostage, interfaith colleagues gathered to help end the standoff


As Rabbi Matthew Soffer of Temple Judea Reform in Durham, North Carolina, told Religion News Service recently, the priority on security lets members know that the religious institution cares about their safety. He added, “That, too, is a form of welcome.”

Our hope as those who attend and lead religious institutions is to maintain our humaneness and treat others with compassion, while keeping ourselves and others safe. Our own conversations reflect that tension and that hope.

We are all created in the image of God. What would we do, any of us, next time a stranger came to our doors, asking for a cup of tea and looking for God knows what? Who would they find in us?

(Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy” and author of the novel “Questioning Return.” Rosalind C. Hughes is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio, and author of “Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence“.)

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