I’ve got a sore, lumpy knot of grief stuck in the back of my throat. I feel it lodged there in my neck every time I try to swallow. It showed up when I first heard the news that there was an active shooter situation in Pittsburgh. In a synagogue.
I am not Jewish, not by birth or faith, but I feel Jewish sometimes. Like Judaism and its people adopted me. For almost three years, I worked in a synagogue in Indianapolis. I was an administrative assistant, helping the religious school director, the early childhood center director, and the cantor. This was during a pretty rough time in my life (second only to my cancer diagnosis and treatment in terms of the wreck it made of my body and mind).
I was divorcing my first husband, a dedicated manipulator and compulsive liar who, as it turned out, refused to leave my home for months—even after our divorce had been finalized by the courts. And then when my ex did leave, he used his position at his job to target me for online harassment. The situation was abusive, though not physically so.
My ex is not the point though. I only bring him up so you can get an inkling of my state during the time I was working for Congregation Beth-El Zedeck. The important thing is not what I went through, it’s how I got through it: by going to work every day in a place filled with people dedicated to making the world better for other people. How many of us can say we got paid to go to our safe space?
I was so lucky to have had that job.
I’ll never forget my orientation when I was hired. No cheesy sexual harassment videos from the ’90s to watch. Just one of my bosses giving me his estimation of things. “You’ll find there are some strong personalities here,” he said. “And we’re not completely immune to office drama and interpersonal conflict, but I wake up every day knowing that anyone here would take a bullet for me and I’d do the same for them.”
That memory is playing so vividly in my mind today.
When I read the names of the victims at Congregation Tree of Life this morning, the words “take a bullet” started playing in a loop. And I couldn’t stop myself from imagining what if. What if yesterday’s murderer hadn’t been in Pittsburgh.
I know antisemitism isn’t new. But the stories have been more frequent and hitting closer to home lately. A University of Illinois student vandalized the menorah outside the Illini Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Champaign. Nazi flags and Iron Crosses were spray-painted on brick walls at Congregation Shaarey Tefilla in Carmel, Indiana.
In a statement from Beth-El, I read that they are working with law enforcement to reinforce security for the synagogue and religious school. And that’s when my heart broke a second time. Because the people that make up the safest place I can think of—safer than my own home, or the church I grew up in—are being robbed of that same sense of security they gave me, the security everyone deserves.
Sit back. I’m going to tell you guys a little story about my youth.
It’s 1992. I am in sixth grade Sunday School class in a small town (population 7,000) Baptist church. The class consists of one sweet and mild-mannered teacher, a half dozen run-of-the-mill tweenage kids dragged to church by their parents, one folding table, twelve metal folding chairs, a corner cabinet with a few Bibles stuffed in it, and one Certifiable Asshole.
The certifiable asshole—CA, we’ll call him—was a towheaded brat who enjoyed a certain level of popularity at our public school during the week. A friend of mine once asked if she could sleep over at my house and go to church with me in the morning “because [CA] goes to your church and he’s really cute.” I think he played soccer or baseball or maybe both.
He was the adolescent equivalent of the guy at the office who “well actually”s all the women in a meeting and then repeats what they said verbatim.
Yeah, I know.
CA didn’t come from an Every Sunday™ kind of family like I did. He was in attendance at Sunday School, if I’m being generous, maybe 60% of the time. He was an entitled young man, prone to blurting rude, hurtful things at his peers. Whether to get a reaction or just make himself feel superior, I can’t say. What I can say, is that as a quiet, pimply, awkward 12-year-old girl, I preferred the 40% of Sundays I didn’t have to look at his smug-ass face.
“Your dad’s sermons are soooooo boring,” he once told the preacher’s kid, apropos of nothing.
“When are you bringing doughnuts and chocolate milk again,” he asked our teacher another morning. She had provided them as a treat once, and he either didn’t know or didn’t care that he was being rude.
“That dress is ugly,” he greeted me one rare Sunday morning when I was feeling particularly well put together.
See what I mean? Cer. Ti. Fi. A. Ble. ASSHOLE.
Our church used to have fifth Sunday dinners, a church-wide potluck held in the Family Life Center after the sermon every time there were five Sundays in a month. It happened a few times a year.
There was one lady who showed up without fail on every fifth Sunday. She was elderly and quiet and black. She dressed nicely, but you could tell she didn’t have a lot of money for clothes or anything. She didn’t appear to be close with anyone in the congregation. I mean, I never noticed anyone saying anything more than a polite good morning to her, but maybe someone did. It’s not like I was watching her closely, knowing I’d be writing this blog post 26 years later.
“Mrs. M is here for lunch,” CA said to our teacher one fifth Sunday. “She only shows up for the food, why doesn’t she ever come to church any other time?”
I waited for the teacher to say something about how Jesus told us to be kind to everybody. How maybe if CA wanted her to be at church every Sunday he should bring her something to eat instead of demanding she be at church every Sunday just to be deemed worthy of food three or four times a year.
The teacher took a book out of her tote bag and told us where we could find the scripture for the lesson if we wanted to follow along in our Bibles.
It’s been ten years since I’ve put even my big toe inside a church. Twenty since I’ve wanted to. It’s not because I turned bitter, either. It’s because Christians have gotten worse. Immigrant-hating, child-caging kind of worse.
Y’all m*****f****** need Jesus.