Despite all the security training they’d sat through and everything that the congregants knew about the heightened dangers of hate and ignorance, they still kept the faith and opened the synagogue door to for the stranger who knocked. He was welcomed inside Congregation Beth Israel where it was warm on a particularly cold Saturday in their small Texas community. He was offered tea. Then, he revealed his violent intentions. Wielding a gun, he made hostages of the rabbi and the three worshipers who were attending services in person on the Sabbath. The four escaped, not because police officers stormed the synagogue, but because security experts had schooled these civilians on how to be proactive, look for their moment and save their own lives. And when it appeared that the gunman, full of antisemitic bile, had grown more agitated and desperate, they bolted for the door and ran to safety.
The hostages survived and their assailant was killed. And the foundations of faith — those precepts of generosity, grace and trust — were tested yet again. After the terrible ordeal in Colleyville, the public thankfully didn’t find itself weeping over lives brutally taken by a gunman.
But there are still so many tears to be shed.
It’s quite astonishing when people who historically have felt the brunt of unfettered hatred and violence continue to extend their hand. It’s nothing short of miraculous that those who have been demonized are still willing to listen to their better angels — indeed, that they’re willing to heed them.
The generosity of Congregation Beth Israel calls to mind the welcoming embrace of the worshipers at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. The Black men and women opened their hearts to the stranger who came to the door during their Bible study. They fellowshipped with him and prayed with him. And then he, a white supremacist, killed nine of them, including the senior pastor. The worshipers had not allowed the history of American racism and violence against Black churches to cause them to throw up physical barricades and emotional walls. They didn’t look at the young man who would become their murderer as a stereotype or an archetype. They saw an individual. Surely, that’s a testament to the resilience of the human heart.
But then the very nature of faith is in being willing to take a risk, to believe in a source of goodness or solace or strength that’s impossible to explain. Faith is wholly illogical. A congregation is little more than fertile ground where the tiniest seeds of hope can grow.
What would a synagogue or church or meeting house be if only the familiar were allowed in? So despite all the history that argues against an open-door policy, the doors of the church still swing open. Security guards may patrol the parking lots, vestibules and fellowship halls. Members may settle into pews and kneel for prayers all while taking heed of the closest exit. And everyone becomes an amateur FBI profiler as they try to determine whether a stressed out stranger at the door is a deadly threat or simply a nervous visitor who finally found the courage to come ask for help. The marvel is how often congregations decide that open arms are what’s needed rather than a defensive posture.
At their most beautiful and inspiring, congregations lift up the human spirit and make room for everyone’s flaws and failures. They’re nonjudgmental and take people at their word. They see the best in others often just when it has become impossible for people to see the goodness in themselves. Faith communities speak lovingly but truthfully to their members. In that way, they are, one hopes, like family. None of that is possible without a willingness to take a risk, to open oneself to a wounded ego, slings and arrows, a broken heart.
Faith communities falter when they become hierarchical, self-righteous and self-aggrandizing. When they close themselves off from their surroundings and look at all outsiders with suspicion or disdain, they may enhance their own safety but in the process, they suffocate the spirit. They snuff themselves out.
The assaults on houses of worship don’t put religion in danger. Judaism, Islam, Christianity. The sacred texts, the organizational flow charts, the politics, the financial demands will go on just fine. Buildings can be repaired and reconstructed. Personal faith can withstand these terrorizing attacks, too. Many believers will cling to their God with greater urgency and devotion. They will find certainty where there was doubt. Their faith will guide them through the darkness.
No, what makes these attacks on places of worship so grievous — beyond the lives that are lost and the families that are traumatized — is that they take aim at the spirit of community that these buildings foster. Their power is the light they shine out beyond their walls. They’re admirable not because of the way in which they treat their most devoted members: the ones who fill up the collection plate or who have instant recall of long passages of scripture. The grandest house of worship isn’t necessarily the historical building with a place of honor on a wide boulevard. It isn’t the one with the largest membership or the most prestigious one. It’s the house whose doors are always open to the least of its neighbors. And every assault is a reminder that those open doors are an astounding, heartbreaking miracle.