Coming Together after Pittsburgh: Our faiths have watered the same ‘Tree of Life’

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I am writing this column the morning after a crazed, hate-filled man opened fire on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 of our sisters and brothers, wounding more, including four police officers.


The Star of David entwined with a Christian cross symbolizes a shared heritage.

We Christians know—or should know—that it was the Jews who gave birth to and blessed our Christian life.  Our Judeo-Christian faith began with the prayers of thanksgiving that Moses and Miriam offered once God had delivered their people, our people, from slavery in Egypt, opening the Red Sea waters with a strong east wind until migrant Jews were safe on the other side, on their way to the Promised Land.

When the Egyptian charioteers in hot pursuit began to cross the Red Sea, the wind stopped and the returning waters engulfed them. “Sing to the Lord,” Moses called out, “for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and his rider [the pursuing Egyptians] he has hurled into the sea.”  And then Miriam led a group of women, dancing to the sound of tambourines, singing the same song. “Sing to the Lord!”

Those who had reached the far shore did not credit their salvation to personal bravery or good luck in the form of that strong wind. It was, for our spiritual ancestors, an act of God, and their response was one of thanksgiving. That is the moment when both the Jewish and Christian faiths, those shared Trees of Life, began. And at our best, we have been giving thanks to God for the good—and glorious—things that have happened for us ever since.

I like to remind both Jews and Christians  that, according to Luke (4:18-19), Jesus’ began his ministry with the words of the prophet Isaiah who lived six centuries before him: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Isaiah wrote, “because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61: 1-2). At our best, both Jews and Christians have made these words of Isaiah and Jesus our guide.

My home church, Trinity Episcopal, in New Orleans, and leaders of the Jewish community have long enjoyed a supportive and fruitful relationship. Researching Trinity’s history, I find that in the late 1890s Jewish leaders were, with Trinity, co-founders of Kingsley House, one of the strongest multi-service agencies in the nation. Following the yellow fever epidemic of 1905, Trinity’s rector, Dr. Beverly Warner, led an effort to control that dreaded disease. So appreciative were the Jewish leaders that on Christmas Day, they gave him a “carved library set.” When Dr. Warner died, at age 55, a rabbi wrote: “New Orleans loses its foremost citizen. It seems as if he was the conscience of the commonwealth.”  Trinity members could have written the same of Jewish friends and leaders.

That close Trinity/Jewish relationship has continued over the years. Does that mean anti-Semitism or anti-Christian sentiments have never lurked in the hearts New Orleans Jews and Christians? It does not. What it means is that places of worship in our city have struggled mightily, and not without success, to overcome hate and suspicion and tribal differences. When Father Henry Hudson was rector of Trinity (2007-2016), he invited Rabbi Edward Cohn of Temple Sinai to give the sermon at the main Sunday service. The congregation gave Cohn a standing ovation.

When I heard about the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, I called or emailed Jewish friends, including my brother-in-law, to thank them for being Jewish and to let them know that my wife, Corinne Barnwell, and I are among the legion of Americans offering our undying support.

Friends responded to our emails with expressions of appreciation. Here is some of what Rabbi Cohn had to say about the horror that has befallen Tree of Life Congregation: “At this difficult time of such pain, when we cannot help but question the bitter fruit which has taken root from the Trump tree, your words bring comfort to the wound that hatred has wrought.”

My hope is that readers of this column are also looking for ways to best support our sisters and brothers in the Jewish community, and that we will continue to do so, not just at this heart-breaking moment in American history, but in all the days that remain to us.

William Barnwell

The Rev. Barnwell

The Rev. William Barnwell, an Episcopal priest, is the author of numerous books tracing his evolution as a Christian, from boyhood in segregated Charleston, S.C., to the continuing struggle against racism in New Orleans today. His latest is “Angels in the Wilderness: Young and Black in New Orleans and Beyond.” 

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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