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Black Christian leaders pray for unity, healing, justice alongside Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh

November 20, 2018

It’s time for Pittsburghers to shed their reputation for avoiding crossing rivers and bridges, several religious and community leaders said Monday night in the city’s Hill District.

“We need to and must cross more bridges,” said Brian Magee, CEO of Pump, a Downtown-based nonprofit that runs the Pittsburgh Sports League and works with more than 30,000 people under the age of 40 in civic and community programs.

“To the Jewish community: We love you, we love you, we stand with you. You are our neighbors. We will work tirelessly alongside you to build bridges and eradicate hate from our communities.”

More than two dozen people representing a variety of faiths and groups -- Jews, Christians, Muslims and community advocates -- gathered in the historically black Pittsburgh neighborhood to pray and promote unity and social justice following Saturday’s deadly attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

“We just got stronger, and we’ll continue bonding together,” said Richard A. Stewart Jr., president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP. “In other words, this is a common cause and a common goal. ... This thing just made us stronger.”

Josh Sayles, spokesman for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, recited the names of the 11 people killed in the deadliest attack that targeted Jews in U.S. history.

“We’re here today to honor the memory of those 11 people who were killed simply because they were Jewish,” Sayles said alongside Tim Stevens, president of the Black Political Empowerment Project, which organized the gathering at Freedom Unlimited and the NAACP office in the Hill District. ”... And of course we’re here to stand in solidarity and to let all who will listen know that anti-semitism, racism and bigotry will not be tolerated in our community.”

Sayles recounted two other mass shootings targeting groups in recent years: the attack on Pulse, an LGBTQ-friendly nightclub in Orlando, Fla. in 2016, and the deadly shooting at a black church in Charleston, S.C. the year before.

“On Saturday, it was a Jewish synagogue in Squirrel Hill. This tragedy ... has happened in every one of our diverse communities, and that’s why it’s so important for us to stand here together today.”

Several black church pastors and chaplains drew connections between hatred against religious groups with racism against people of color.

“The xenophobic that we’re dealing with today is a decedent of racism,” said Pittsburgh police Chief Chaplain John Welch, “and so until we deal with racism ... we will continue to deal with the xenophobia that we are experiencing.”

The Rev. Delphia Blackburn, a police chaplain who helped console the synagogue victims’ families in hospital waiting rooms, recalled running from violence targeting black students decades ago when she attended Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill.

“That all needs to stop,” she said. “We are people, we are human, we are children of God.”

Alaa Mohamed, a member of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, said she has learned through her nonprofit work all the ways that Jewish groups have improved the region, from investing in youth programs to helping refugees resettling in Western Pennsylvania.

“They welcome immigrants and refugees. Wherever you go in this city, there is not a single corner that has not been touched by the Jewish community, by the good that is the Jewish community,” Mohamed said. “So this attack is very personal. It is an attack on brothers and sisters in faith, but it’s an attack on my brothers and sisters in humanity. And that’s not OK.”

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