Thanks for reading this week’s news and media update from Bricks and Mortals.
We see examples of communities across the country presenting opposition to construction or expansion of houses of worship, especially synagogues and mosques, citing zoning, traffic, or parking concerns. In Rego Park, Queens, community members are opposing the conversion of a residential home into a three-story synagogue citing traffic and parking concerns. The proposed synagogue’s congregation currently operates out of the Rabbi’s home, and is the only synagogue in the area serving the Sephardic community. In Washington Township, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia, a mosque’s expansion plan is now underway after three years of opposition by the city planning department, which initially denied the mosque’s application for a zoning variance to build a house of worship in a commercial district.
In Chicago, the Epworth United Methodist Church’s congregation and the Methodist Church came to a decision to sell their building. While the purchaser of the building had said that they would pursue adaptive reuse, they soon filed a demolition permit. Government officials are working to pursue landmarking of the building to ensure that it does not get torn down, and are also working to help find a new home for the Cornerstone Shelter, which is currently located in the church building and provides vital shelter and services to unhoused men.
Across the country, faith-based organizations have been participating in the Interfaith Cool Congregations Challenge, organized by Interfaith Power and Light. The contest encouraged houses of worship to reduce their building’s carbon footprint. One congregation, Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church, reduced its impact by installing new, efficient HVAC systems and energy-efficient windows.
Food is central to most religious traditions. In San Antonio, Texas, Rabbi Natanel Greenwald has been developing a kosher version of traditional Texas barbeque. There is a legacy of kosher barbeque – Sruli “Izzy” Edelman opened Izzy’s Smokehouse in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and has also toured kosher barbeque pits throughout Texas.
A new report from Faith Communities Today and the Synagogue Studies Institute highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on synagogues throughout the United States. Roughly 60% of synagogues reported that their membership was stable or growing, while 40% saw declining membership. However, like Christian houses of worship, there is great inequality between synagogues in terms of membership – 70% of people attend just 10% of synagogues.
As attendance at many houses of worship declines, many wonder what is pushing people away from mainline faith-based organizations. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Carolyn Chen highlighted her research and new book, Work Pray Code. In it, she looks at the ways that technology companies have embraced spiritual concepts and language, encouraging their workers to replace religious devotion with devotion to their 70-hour per week tech job.
The past two weeks have been a procession of gun violence incidents across the United States. This will look at these incidents chronologically with an eye to how faith issues intersect with these attacks.
On Saturday, May 14, a man drove 200 miles to a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and murdered 10 people in a mass shooting. The shooter had planned the racist attack in a Black neighborhood in order to target victims based on their race.
Amongst the victims was Heyward Patterson, a community leader and deacon at State Tabernacle Church of God. A New York Times article noted that he viewed his time at the supermarket as a kind of “second ministry”; he was murdered helping another community member load groceries into their car.
Buffalo is a city "haunted by segregation," with the sixth highest housing vacancy rate in the nation. The city is the third poorest in the country: 28.8% of residents and 43.4% of children live below the poverty line. The Investigative Post notes that Black neighborhoods, primarily in East Buffalo, have for decades seen “under-investment and over-policing,” including substandard housing. Despite the effects of redlining, continuing segregation, and concentrated poverty, many groups in Buffalo provide support and community to residents.
In the face of violence, faith leaders in Buffalo came together to provide support to their community, offering counseling, conducting vigils, and contacting relatives of the deceased. The community may see a prolonged closure of the Tops supermarket throughout the police investigation; leaders at the SS Columbia-Brigid Church are calling on Wegmans to open a store in East Buffalo, which is currently a food desert.
Important to note is that the attack was modeled on a 2019 racist, Islamophobic attack on a house of worship in New Zealand. The shooter, in his writing about the planned attack and social media posts, claimed that his attack was inspired by the Christchurch massacre. In Christchurch, a shooter wrote a 70-page screed citing racist "great replacement theory" rhetoric before entering a mosque and murdering 51 people while livestreaming the violence.
Spaces where people gather together, from houses of worship to neighborhood stores, unfortunately serve as targets for identity-based terrorism.
In Laguna Woods, California, on Sunday, May 15, a shooting at Geneva Presbyterian Church left one dead and five injured. The Taiwanese-American congregation, Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which shares space at Geneva, had been enjoying a luncheon when the gunman entered; one church member, Dr. John Cheng, rushed the gunman and was killed, but likely prevented many more deaths through his bravery. The attack was motivated in part by intra-Taiwanese tensions. The shooting drew strong condemnation from Taiwan’s president.
This incident again highlights houses of worship as targets for terroristic violence by serving as spaces where communities gather - especially for immigrant and non-Christian communities.
This is the second mass shooting at a house of worship in California this year. In February, a man murdered his three children and their court-appointed chaperone at The Church in Sacramento, before killing himself. The Church served as the location for supervised visits between the children and their father, who had a restraining order.
As houses of worship face threats of violence, many have looked to install security systems and enhanced safety measures. Many congregations now view the role of “greeter” as involving both violence prevention and welcoming. The Department of Homeland Security released guidelines and resources to enhance security at houses of worship in 2017 and a video in 2019. FEMA also released guidelines for houses of worship facing bombings and arson.
On Sunday (5/22) afternoon in New York City, a shooter killed a rider on the Q Train as it crossed the Manhattan Bridge.
Faith leaders were instrumental in locating the perpetrator of the attack and bringing him to the NYPD: After speaking to a bishop, the shooter turned himself into police.
On Tuesday afternoon, a gunman killed at least 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. This was the second deadliest school shooting in US history.
Following these tragic events, faith leaders stepped up. In the hospital waiting room, a pastor consoled grieving family members. Houses of worship in Uvalde hosted vigils, praying for the victims of the attack and emergency responders. Faith-based organizations also provided comfort dogs to grieving community members. In times of crisis, faith leaders and houses of worship often provide much needed support to their communities, from counseling to food services.
Both locally in Texas and internationally, faith leaders have begun to call for gun law reform, ranging from assault weapons bans to background checks. Texans are also planning an interfaith protest at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Houston today.
That’s all for this week. We’ll be back next Friday.