Attacked in places most sacred, congregations struggle on
Jun. 22, 2015
The blast, powered by at least 40 sticks of dynamite, ripped into the stillness before dawn.
A few more hours and Sunday school classrooms at The Temple on Atlanta's Peachtree Street would have been filled with 600 children. The synagogue was spared blood, but the explosion on that morning in 1958 rocked a Jewish congregation whose backing of the civil rights movement had long sown fears of retaliation.
But congregants, however shaken, found their first bit of solace when the rabbi posted the title of his next sermon on a signboard streetside: "And none shall make them afraid," it read.
As members of a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, begin searching for a path forward after the massacre of their pastor and eight others, history provides far too many examples for them to follow — from Atlanta to Birmingham and points beyond — where hate turned our most sacred institutions into crime scenes.
Recovery is not a choice for these places and their people. But those who've done the hard work of rebuilding shattered congregations recall it as a wrenching experience, even as it inspired a deepened search for affirmation.
"Even until this day ... we still have armed security at the door," says Pardeek Kaleka, whose father was one of six people killed by a gunman who burst into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012. "I don't think there's ever going to be closure, but we're healing."
That search for healing, despite its pain, can serve to unite, Kaleka and others say.
"The sanctuary was packed that Friday night" immediately after the synagogue bombing in Atlanta, recalls Alvin Sugarman, a college student at the time who years later became the Reform congregation's rabbi. "The silent majority came out of the woodwork. ... It became a healing thing, instead of a breach. It brought the decent people of the community together."
Probably no faith community in the U.S. has endured greater violence than African-American churches, targeted by decades of burning and bombings. Even years afterward, their experience shows how an attack on a place considered sacred can inflict the deepest of scars.
Members of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, had to rebuild both the congregation's structure and psyche after a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klansmen ripped apart the building and killed four black girls gathered for Sunday worship on Sept. 15, 1963.
The city already was known as "Bombingham" because of a series of racist bombings going back years. But the bloody specter of children dying in church shocked the nation.
"If these cruel and tragic events can only awaken that city and state — if they can only awaken this entire nation — to a realization of the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence, then it is not too late for all concerned to unite in steps toward peaceful progress before more lives are lost," President John F. Kennedy said.
The victims buried, members turned to repairing damage that included cracks throughout the structure. Donors gave more than $300,000 to restore the church. Today, light from a memorial window donated by the people of Wales still casts a blue glow over the sanctuary's upper balcony.
The repairs were long completed by the time the Rev. Arthur Price arrived as pastor 13 years ago. But memories were still fresh among members who were there the day the bomb went off.
"I think no one really gets over that," says Price. "Every day you think about your friends. Every day you think about your loved ones. Every day you think about what happened in your place of security and sanctity."
The church has become one of Alabama's leading tourist attractions. Strangers often attend worship; some even show up at intimate Bible or prayer meetings like the one being held at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church when a young white man with what are said to be racist motives opened fire.
At 16th Street, even now, members remain a bit on edge.
"If someone comes in with a backpack and leaves a backpack, you know, eyebrows begin to raise," Price says.
In Wisconsin, Kaleka recalls sitting with about 100 other congregants in a bowling alley across the street from the temple on the day of the shooting, waiting for police to confirm the names of the victims. The temple remained closed for weeks as police teams and congregants unrelated to those killed worked to remove the blood-soaked carpets and scrubbed stains from the walls. The assailant, a white supremacist, committed suicide immediately after the attack.
Framed photos of those killed were hung in the temple's entryway soon after the shooting. But Kaleka said the temple's trustees chose to take them down in 2013.
"They removed them because they felt like they gave too much of a feeling of what had happened and people wanted to move on," Kaleka says. "But I think we have to build a foundation on the lives that were lost."
One bullet hole remains in the frame of the doorway entering the great hall, Kaleka says.
"We left that there, and it goes with our mantra — Snatam Kaur— 'We are one.'"
Mourning was not enough for Kaleka. He joined with a former white supremacist, Arno Michaelis, to create Serve2Unite, a community group that works to counter violence with peace. They visit local schools, where Michaelis describes his former life of hate and Kaleka explains how that sort of hatred led to pointless bloodshed.
Soon, Kaleka hopes to take what he has learned to South Carolina, to talk with the families of those killed.
"That wound will never ever go away," he says. "But what you can do is build around that wound. Because you always remember that it's there."
In Atlanta, five men arrested for the 1958 bombing were never convicted. But the weeks after the attack brought hundreds of envelopes filled with dollar bills and notes of concern from around the country, despite the congregation's announcement that the building was fully insured.
"People just wanted to show they cared," says Janice Rothschild Blumberg, whose husband, Jacob, served as rabbi of The Temple.
Their son, Bill Rothschild, says that the Charleston shooting reminded him of how comparatively lucky his congregation had been. Finding a way forward from such horror seems unimaginable, he says.
But Melissa Fay Greene, whose book "The Temple Bombing" chronicled the Atlanta attack, says the role public support played in reassuring congregants leaves her hopeful that Charleston worshippers might eventually find comfort from those near and far.
"I do believe that in their grief that people will feel the country is grieving with them, that we respect you, we identify with you, we are part of you," she says, "that this outrage has been committed against all of us."
Associated Press writers Dana Ferguson in Madison, Wisconsin, Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, and Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee contributed to this report.