“I believe fear is usually the basis of division. We fear what we don’t know. What we don’t understand. It causes resentments and false assumptions. Peace is not the absence of conflict. There will always be conflict. Peace is working hard to overcome fear, engage, and work through conflict. Peacemaking is always important, in any time and place.” – Seph Kumer, First Covenant Director of Community Engagement
Written by Marsha MacKinnon, Webmaster for the First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant
The peace at a house of worship shattered on October 27, 2018, when a gunman armed with an AR-15 style assault rifle opened fire inside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, killing 11 church members and injuring 7 others. As the New York Times reported, it was the deadliest attack against the Jewish Community in the United States. More than 50 criminal charges have been filed against the shooter including federal hate crimes charges. In August, federal prosecutors indicated that they are seeking the death penalty in this case. He is awaiting trial.
In recent years, hate has fueled other mass shootings at houses of worship including; the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017, where 26 were killed and another 20 injured; Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 where the shooter killed 9 people including the pastor, the shooter is serving life without parole; and on March 15, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand where a gunman, entered a mosque and using an assault style rifle, killed 51 people and injured 49.
In the year since the Tree of Life shootings, First Covenant has stepped-up the cultivation of peace in our neighborhood, in our city and beyond while rejecting any form of hate. Another part of this equation is thoughtful and purposeful outreach to those of different faiths. Seph Kumer is the Director of Community Engagement for First Covenant. Seph’s ministry is to thoroughly explore, develop, and engage in making connections, building partnerships and nurturing relationships with all people. “The outreach to those of other faiths in our community is a direct result of the church’s engagement with neighborhood university students of other faiths. Muslim, Hindu and Jewish students from Israel began visiting the church, asking spiritual questions, volunteering in various capacities. This led to connections in Erie with local mosques, the Sikh Temple and the Jewish temple,” he said.
Cultivating relationships with those of other faiths began a few years ago. The process of peace making is continually ongoing. “One of the most amazing nights I can remember was a few years ago when a Muslim student from Saudi Arabia asked if I could arrange a dinner to include him, a student from Israel and myself. As I sat at TGIFriday’s listening to the questions and comments the 3 of us were sharing, I was struck with how this would not occur in Israel or Saudi Arabia. Only in the U.S. could members of the 3 Abrahamic faiths share a meal, laughs, and discovery like we did that evening,” Seph said.
During Lent 2019, First Covenant studied the Beatitudes including “Blessed are the Peacemakers.”On Sunday, April 7, 2019 a peace pole was installed on the north side of the Covenant campus, just south of West 6th Street. Inscribed on the peace pole the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” and it is written in eight languages including; English, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi, Russian, Swahili and Turkish. All languages that are spoken in the Erie community. This peace pole serves as a visual reminder to promote peace everywhere. After a year at First Covenant, the peace pole is scheduled to move to the Turkish Cultural Center (mosque) in April 2020. Then in April 2021, the peace pole will move to the new Anshe-Hesed Synagogue.
On that same Sunday, a new “Peace” banner was hung in the Covenant Sanctuary. The “Peace” banner was created during a Covenant Connections dinner that included church members, Gannon University International Students and church neighbors. Ellie Zimmer and Cindy Kerchoff designed and assembled the banner, while others put prayers on the letters, asking God to help make peace in themselves, at home, in the community and around the world.
The process of peace building involves personal encounters that involve give and take exchanges. “Our church members visited Temple Anshe Hesed (Jewish synagogue in Erie) for a tour and on that night Iraqi and Saudi students came along and marveled at something they have never had the opportunity to experience at home,” Seph observed.
The process of promoting peace is reciprocal. “Covenant Church members attended the vigil at Anshe Hesed after the Pittsburgh Tree of Life shootings. Church members attended the vigil at a local mosque after the New Zealand mosque shootings. Church and Sikh Temple folks worked together on the MLK Center Neighborhood Thanksgiving Dinner. Students from many faiths help prepare a dinner for guests at the (winter) shelter each time it is at First Covenant.”
Students from many faiths attend StudySpace at Covenant. This outreach program involves opening the church campus from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. daily, during finals week, in the fall and spring so Gannon students can find a quiet place to study for exams. “It is remarkable that Hindu and Muslim students have begun referring to First Covenant like this: ‘our church’ as in “when is the next event at ‘our church’, Mr. Joseph?” They have expressed that they feel welcome, at home, loved, and safe at First Covenant. This has opened so many doors between individual students and church members,” Seph said.
First Covenant welcomed friends from the Turkish Cultural Center on May 8, 2019 to share an “Iftar” meal (3rd Annual Iftar) at sunset and to learn more about the Muslin month of Ramadan. The sharing of a meal and conversation around a table allowed for opportunities to not only share delicious Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food but to dispel fears, to make new friends and demonstrate God’s love. “I want others to know that each of us is made in God’s image. God loves each of us, regardless of our beliefs. I want them to see how Jesus shows us God’s love. I strive to live my life in response to God’s mercy, grace and love by loving others. What I want students to experience and know about FPCC is love, hospitality, invitation to dialogue, refuge, and welcome,” he said. “Since we live in a country that affords freedom to participate in many faiths, or no faith, it is good to remove some fear,” Seph believes. “It is good to learn. I believe that when the church welcomes ‘faith strangers’ it sends a message: Let’s learn from one another. Let’s affirm what we can about each other. Let’s build our community together despite our differences.”
A recent mission study at First Covenant revealed several key goals for the congregation. Some of those goals include focused outreach, hospitality, and especially welcoming those, who are different from us; all of which supports peacemaking. “I believe fear is usually the basis of division. We fear what we don’t know and what we don’t understand. It causes resentments and false assumptions. Peace is not the absence of conflict. There will always be conflict. Peace is working hard to overcome fear, engage, and work through conflict. Peacemaking is always important, in any time and place. It starts within us! Peace with ourselves. Peace with our families. Peace in our neighborhoods. Peace in our workplaces. Peace in our faith communities. Peace in our cities and nations. Peace among the nations,” Seph said.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Matthew 5: 9 NRSV Bible
Seph knows peacemaking is difficult, time consuming work but believes it’s work worthy of our energy. “I’ve learned that having a more humble approach with those who do not share my religious beliefs helps me not give off an attitude of superiority…like ‘Christians are the smartest about every question in life.’ Or ‘Christians have the one correct answer to every situation.’ I have learned so much about generosity from my Muslim friends. I have watched Muslim students share clothing, and household goods with refugees. One Muslim community member paid out hundreds of dollars from his own pocket to purchase groceries to feed homeless neighbors at the church. A Hindu student has given hundreds of dollars quietly for the church to use to care for neighbors with needs.”
Given the current climate in America and around the world where places of worship, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, have been targeted by terrorists; the faithful response is demonstrating God’s love, nurturing peace, understanding and acceptance – one relationship at a time. “We need to be vigilant to protect each other’s rights. An attack on one house of worship should be seen as an attack on all. If we live out of fear it will be ugly. We need to find ways to pray and work together for peace in our communities. On the local, individual level there are often many examples of simple, meaningful peacemaking, Seph said. “I’ve seen neighbors and students of other faiths discover through dialogue how much they have in common. I’ve seen neighbors and students of other faiths accept and appreciate what they learn from one another and it causes them to dig deeper into understanding their own faith.”