By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
Within hours of the Oct. 27 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, religious leaders in Carbondale were making plans to come together in solidarity and healing.
The next day, more than 150 people crowded into Congregation Beth Jacob in Carbondale offering prayers for the victims of the shooting, as well as everyone affected by the violent attack.
Father Bob Flannery, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, says it was no accident that the faith community was able to gather so quickly – it’s the result of years of bridge-building between the faiths in Carbondale.
“It’s not just that we have contacts with each other,” Father Flannery says. “We’ve had friendships over the years, held other events together. We’re grateful we were able to do this so quickly.”
The shooting came on a Saturday morning at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. A man identified as Robert D. Bowers entered the building armed with an AR-15 rifle and several handguns. He shot and killed 11 people, ranging in age from 54 to 97, and wounded another six, including several police officers.
Father Flannery says he was busy that morning with a funeral at St. Francis, and didn’t hear the news until hours later, when Murphysboro Mayor Will Stephens called asking that he come to a rally being held locally that day by President Donald Trump. Father Flannery and Beth Jacob leader Sam Goldman, were asked to offer prayers for peace in the wake of the shooting.
By that night, Father Flannery says, he and Goldman were already contacting other members of the Carbondale Interfaith Council, a nearly 50-year-old organization that brings together representatives of a wide range of religious traditions, including Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, Buddhist, Hindu and Baha’i. Members meet regularly for social occasions such as potluck dinners, but also to hold discussions and help the community.
Father Flannery says they’ve stood together in the past against minor acts of vandalism at local houses of worship. Upon hearing of the attack in Pittsburgh, council members felt it was important to show solidarity with Congregation Beth Jacob.
“It was debated whether to hold it there, whether it could be done in safety,” Father Flannery says. “But (the temple) polled their board members and they wanted to have it there.”
Invitations were sent to local churches via email; Father Flannery says they didn’t want to broadcast news about the event more widely because of security concerns.
Jack Wides, president of the board of directors for the synagogue, says they asked the Carbondale Police Department to have a patrol car stationed in front of the temple during the service.
“We just thought it’d be prudent to do that,” Wides says. “We thought it would give everyone a certain level of security to see the car parked in front.”
People entered the temple Sunday evening to the strains of a string and woodwind quartet that had performed earlier that day on the Southern Illinois University–Carbondale campus. Wides says it was led by Edward Benyas, a member of Congregation Beth Jacob and music director for the SIU Symphony Orchestra.
“There were violins and an oboe,” Father Flannery says. “The music was very Jewish, very appropriate and somber.”
Among those in attendance were Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry, as well as an imam from the Carbondale Muslim Center and representatives from the Lutheran, Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Quaker and Baha’i faiths. Wides notes that not just religious leaders, but members of local congregations came to show their support.
Following Jewish tradition, the names of the dead were read aloud.
During the memorial service, Father Flannery read a message from Pope Francis. The pope prayed that the Lord “help us to extinguish the hotbeds of hatred that develop in our societies, strengthening the sense of humanity, respect for life, moral and civil values and the holy fear of God, who is Love and Father of all.”
Father Flannery also read a statement issued by the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, which condemned all acts of violence and hate and called on public officials to confront the plague of gun violence.
Wides says all of the speakers at the memorial service made their remarks short, in order to give everyone the opportunity to contribute. “They were all very aware and very good,” he says. “Father Bob is always good. Sam Goldman represented us well.”
Father Flannery serves as the diocesan director for ecumenical and interreligious affairs. He encourages parishes to reach out to other churches in their areas, and to look for ways to work together.
He knows that prayers for the victims at Tree of Life will continue at St. Francis and at other churches throughout the diocese.
“We’ll be praying for an end to acts of hatred and terrorism,” he says. “I hope that parishes are praying for an end to injustice and intolerance of any kind.”