Eleven members of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh died at the hands of a mass killer. Courtesy Tree of Life.
Killer of 11 at Pittsburgh synagogue sentenced to die
PITTSBURGH (RNS) — On Thursday (Aug. 3), one day after a jury unanimously decided that Robert Bowers should face the death penalty for gunning down 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, a US district judge formally sentenced Bowers to die for the worst antisemitic attack in American history.
But it will take years and likely decades for the sentence to be carried out, if it happens at all.
Bowers will join 41 others on federal death row. Sixteen people have been executed by the federal govern- ment since Congress reinstated capital punishment in 1988. Bowers’ defense team is now expected to appeal the verdict to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. He may then have other appeals available to him, up to and including the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, in 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a moratorium on federal executions, officially to allow the the Justice Department to review policies and procedures surrounding the practice.
Bowers, 50, will likely live for the foreseeable future — most likely in Terre Haute, Ind., where most federal death row prisoners are housed. Those realities may matter little to the survivors or the families of victims of the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting. Seven of the nine families of the victims (the 11 victims included two brothers and a married couple) strongly advocated for the death penalty.
"Capital punishment exists for the worst crimes and it really doesn’t get much worse than this," said Howard Fienberg, whose mother, Joyce, was among those killed by Bowers. "You’re dealing in this case with a defendant that has never had the slightest bit of remorse. He had every opportunity to reconsider and to regret and, and to give up, and he didn’t. That’s what the death penalty is for."
Others also made clear that the country’s worst act of antisemitism deserves the death penalty if only for the message it conveys: that hatred of Jews should never be tolerated.
"Antisemitism is rising, including the spread and promotion of hate on social media, in public, and by celeb- rities and politicians,” said survivor Martin Gaynor. “This trial is also important in sending a signal in the strongest possible terms that antisemitism and hate have no place in our hearts, no place in our commu- nities, no place in our country, and will not be tolerated."
On Oct. 27, 2018, Bowers drove to Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, the heart of the city’s Jewish community, where three congregations were holding Shabbat services. After shooting 11 of the gathered worshippers, he reportedly told law enforcement that "Jews are the children of Satan" and told a SWAT officer that "all these Jews needed to die."
In July, Bowers was found guilty of all 63 charges, including 22 capital offenses. A jury voted unanimously for the death penalty. The number of death sentences in the US has plummeted since 2000, with most death sentences imposed by the states. Federal cases, such as the Pittsburgh one, are even rarer.
Only 16 people have been executed by the federal government since Congress reinstated the punishment. Of those, 13 were executed in the final year of the Trump administration. Between 2003 and 2020 there were no federal executions.
Bowers is the first person to be sentenced to death in a federal case since Biden became president. In March, a New York jury could not arrive at a unanimous decision on the death penalty for Sayfullo Saipov, who was convicted of killing eight people on a New York City bike path in 2017. Saipov received eight consecutive life sentences.
"In the majority of cases in which (federal prosecutors) do seek a death sentence, the result is a life sentence," said Robin Maher, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
The Department of Justice recently decided against seeking a death sentence for Patrick Crusius, who pled guilty of killing 23 people in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart in August 2019.
That reluctance to mete out the ultimate punishment reflects divisions among the nation’s religious groups, too. A 2014 PRRI survey showed that most religious groups are split on the death penalty. When asked which punishment they prefer for people convicted of murder, slightly more religious Americans (48 percent) said they favored life in prison with no chance of parole; 44 percent said they favored the death penalty.
American Jews were among the least likely to support the death penalty in that survey, with 57 percent saying they preferred life in prison.
That was before the Pittsburgh shooting.
Members of two of the three congregations that worshipped at the Tree of Life and lost members there in the shooting said they opposed the death penalty. Jonathan Perlman, the rabbi of New Light Congregation, was especially vocal in opposition to the penalty.
Those who favored the death penalty won the day.
Michael Zoosman, co-founder of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty, said he understood the victim families’ support for the death penalty in this case.
"I think it’s fair to say that there are many more people opposed to the death penalty in principle, but not necessarily for Robert Bowers," said Zoosman, an ordained cantor who works as a chaplain at a federal hospital in Maryland and has previously worked as a death row chaplain.
"If it were me who lost a family member — a child, a parent, a brother, a loved one," he added, "it might be me as well advocating for death for the perpetrator."
Girls in Zambia. USAID Creative Commons
Freely in Hope makes pivot to American churches
After a decade of sex abuse education in Africa, Freely In Hope's shift to North America was prompted by numerous recent sexual abuse scandals in American churches.
(RNS)—Jean Nangwala started singing in her local church worship team at a very young age. She considered this assembly, founded by her grandfather and located in the south of Zambia, a safe haven.
Standing on the stage to sing every Sunday, she said, was her greatest joy — until a member of the worship group, a church leader she trusted, sexually assaulted her when she was 19.
When Nangwala opened up about the rape, pastors questioned her story and blamed her. Ultimately, Nangwala said she stopped singing, left the church and never returned. “I was left alone to find safety in a world that does not involve church when I have always loved church,” she said.
Today, she shares her stories in churches to educate members and leaders as part of Freely in Hope, a faith-based nonprofit that aims to end sexual violence within churches. Founded in 2010, the organization has focused on Africa for a decade but is moving its spotlight to America.
Nangwala also stressed how churches needed to implement more accountability structures. “They are there but are only known by leadership, never communicated to the congregation,” she said.
On recent social media posts, she realized her abuser was still serving in the same church, sometimes in pictures with child- ren. While she is not waiting for an apology from her former congregation, the young woman hopes these sessions will force churches to stop burying their heads in the sand and address these issues.
“I think justice looks like ensuring that churches realize this is a huge problem and it’s happening in their church and make everything to be safe.”
“We believe that the solutions and exper-
iences we built in Kenya and Zambia
Jean Nangwala stressed churches need to implement more accountability structures. "They are there but are only known by leadership, never commu- nicated to the congregation." Courtesy JeanNangwala.com
can be a catalyst for change for faith leaders in America,” explained its founder, Nikole Lim.
With Freely in Hope, Lim and her team impacted more than 10,000 people, funded 43 high school and university scholarships and trained 431 leaders on sexual violence prevention.
For Lim, the first step to changing the mentality around church sexual abuse is acknowledging abuses do happen. Leaders are afraid to address the issue because of the taboo and shame that has encircled sex in the Christian world, she explained.
Yet "one out of three" women has been abused in the world,” noted Lim, quoting a 2021 WHO report on violence against women.
For Nikole Lim, the first step to changing the mentality around church sexual abuse is acknowledging abuses do happen. Courtesy Nikole Lim
"Religious people just are uncomfortable talking about sex," said Eric Hays
Irene Cho, another survivor invited to speak at the Redeeming Sanctuaries conference, also underlined how a culture of silence in churches has protected sexual abusers for years.
At 9 years old, Cho found God in an “Assembly of God-esque type of church,” she said, where her mom converted a few years before. Later, the family moved to the East Coast, and Cho and her mom attended a Korean Pentecostal Church, where her faith really began to grow, she said.
At 17, she felt the call to enter the ministry. When she was 18, she said, her senior pastor assaulted her. “It took me about a year to share it,” she said.
Around her, Cho didn’t find many people to talk to. She opened up to her college pastor, who offered prayers and often checked on her. During this period, she continued to serve in the church and emotionally detached herself from what happened. “I performed to perfection,” she said.
In 2021, Dr. Heather Evans served on the Southern Baptist Convention sexual abuse task force, which oversaw the investigation revealing the mishandling of sexual abuse cases by the church. She also works with sex trafficking victims in East Africa.
Based on her experience in the SBC task force and with clergy sexual abuse survivors, Evans observed that “in a church setting, the trauma is physical, social, and spiritual.”
Gaslighting and denial are common responses to sexual abuse revelations in churches, they worsen the traumatic symptoms the victim experience, said Evans. Contrary to trauma caused by a one-time shock, these victims face a complex, enduring trauma, that does damage to their view of themselves, she says.
Silencing victims or refusing to offer compassionate listening also aggravates their situation.
“When you talk to victims, many of them will tell you: the abuse was terrible, but what was more damaging is the response or the lack of response from those that were supposed to help. It further re-trau- matizes them, it further isolates them. It’s a further betrayal,” she said.
For Cho, who is still involved in a church, toxic misogynist ideologies that permeate churches fuel stigma around sexual abuse. To prevent abuses, churches need to unpack “what it actually means when you are catering to patriarchy, when you are catering to purity culture,” she said.
“All of these issues go together; these oppressive systems are all intertwined and influence the church in its ideology,” according to Cho.
“A lot of time, religious people are just uncomfortable talking about anything that’s related to sex. In the process, people are being victimized. And their stories aren’t told, and we don’t listen to them, and we aren’t talking about it. Because it feels yucky … ”
Since 2022, Hays has hosted discussions on abuse in his 150-member congrega- tion, the Fremont Community Church, in California. Survivors come to share their stories and are offered “reflective listen- ing,” a technique the young pastor learned from Bobby Jackson, a Chicago-based pastor and counselor, that consists of attentive and quiet listening.
Sometimes, Hays meets survivors who have left churches without being heard by anyone. Through these sessions, he says he hopes to foster changes and inspire other leaders to break the cycle in their churches.
“We are not going to hide any skeletons. We are going to expose things to the light because that’s the only way they can be healed,” he said.
He also noted that implementing stricter background checks in churches was crucial.
“I was kind of shocked to learn how many churches don’t do that. It’s a basic safety measure. I can’t volunteer as a baseball coach in my local community without going through background checks.
Certainly, as a church, we should be protecting people better than that.”
Hays, who is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree from Northern Seminary, also hopes seminaries offer more training around sexual abuse to aspiring leaders. He didn’t learn about this 20 years ago “in college,” he said, and has had to make up for his lack of knowledge by himself.
In this sense, Freely in Hope visits seminaries and churches to educate aspiring leaders. At the Redeeming Sanctuaries conference, about 40 church leaders were provided with resources to ensure the safety of their structures, a first step toward more accountability within congregations, explained Lim.
Florida University uses religious exemption to disband faculty union play
JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—Citing a religious exemption, Edward Waters University—a private, historically Black school in Jacksonville—has shut down its faculty union.
The news came weeks after the university announced the inaugural leader of its A. Philip Randolph Institute, named after a prominent African American labor leader who led a successful campaign in 1925 to organize a union of Pullman workers and helped lead the 1963 March on Washington.
But Felicia Wider-Lewis, Ph.D, a former associate professor at Edward Waters - said she will have to leave the school. She claimed the infrastructure deteriorated over the years, and efforts to bargain with university leaders for better conditions failed.
"And I'm not trying to disparage the college in any mean way," said Wider-Lewis. "But we were fighting for our rights—basically, you know, for shared governance, for to have better wages and working conditions—all the things that everybody wants, you know."
Classes just ended this week for the fall semester at Edward Waters.
The university declined to comment for this story, but in a statement to the news organization The Tributary, it cited the National Labor Relations Board's 2020 decision not to have jurisdiction over religious schools.
The university stated it allows "EWU to be driven by its faith-based Christian mission, rather than the political agendas often associated with federal labor policies."
Wider-Lewis said the faculty union has been operating under the American Association of University Profes- sors. Lengthy negotiations came to a sudden halt in May when the university sent a letter saying it will not recognize the union - and since then, it has not.
"You know, the political arena right now, and previous in the Trump administration," said Wider-Lewis, "more of the politics was that anti-union stance."
Last year, the board of trustees of St. Leo University in Florida voted to no longer recognize its 44-year-old faculty union. St. Xavier University in Chicago took a similar stance, as have other religious institutions— taking advantage of the NLRB decision, which is related to a 2018 court case.
Where do Korean Americans stand on race?
Susan Sungsil Kim
By SUSAN SUNGSIL KIM, Contributing Writer
"Where are you from?" "Where are you really from?" "Where are you originally from?"
These questions are often asked in succession of Asian Americans. Sensing the implicit bias, my replies are: "I am from Bedford, Massachusetts" "I am from Westchester, New York, but moved to Massachusetts a few years ago," "Oh, I am Korean! I came here when I was in high school," or "Oh, I discovered America in 1972. How about you?"
I reply with a smile, depending on the situation. I often feel their brief dismay before they share their personal history/herstory. I was enlightened by the naked history of the racial injustice and systemic racism of my adopted country while serving on the Racial Justice Charter Support Team at United Women in Faith—previously known as United
Methodist Women. I understand now the importance of standing up for my rights as a Korean American and also providing an educational opportunity to those who insist on their innocence of not seeing skin color.
Being "color blind" is White privilege that grows into entitlement. What seems to be a simple question of "Where are you from?" may explicitly imply their false ownership of this land that was taken away violently from the indigenous people more than 400 years ago.
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month originated from a weeklong celebration in the first week of May 1990. The first week was selected to commemorate the first-known Japanese immigrants arriving on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad by Chinese laborers on May 10, 1869.
In 1992, Congress passed the law for the monthlong celebration that needs to be credited to Jeanie Jew, a former Capitol Hill staffer who brought the idea of designating a month to celebrate Asian heritage to a New York representative in 1978. Jew’s great-grandfather emigrated from China in the 1800s and was part of the transcontinental railroad workforce.
Twenty thousand Chinese workers toiled through back-breaking labor, and hundreds died from explosions, landslides, accidents and disease, but their major contribution to this historical event was intentionally ignored. Not a single Chinese worker was asked to pose with the other White workers when the celebratory photo of the Golden Spike was taken.
These Chinese workers were hired due to a shortage of willing workers but were accused of taking jobs from White people while suffering from the xenophobic notion of "Yellow Peril." The acts of violence toward the Chinese were common; one incident involved 17 men and boys murdered in Los Angeles in what is now known as the Chinese Massacre of 1871. Another involved San Jose’s Chinatown being burned and destroyed.
The first major wave of Asian immigration occurred in the late 19th century, originating primarily from China, Japan, Korea, India and the Philippines. These contracted workers were brought to Hawaii and the West Coast, where capitalists and missionaries had established plantations and settlements. As the Chinese population increased, the government banned the entry of Chinese to the U.S. and instead imported Japanese—and then substituted the Japanese with Koreans when they protested against the poor living conditions and low wages.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited their immigration for 10 years and was renewed by the Geary Act, which added restrictions such as requiring Chinese residents to carry permits at all times or face pos- sible deportation. Influenced by the civil rights movement, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 elim- inated Asian exclusion laws and brought a large increase in the number of Asian immigrants. Today, about 22.2 million Asians are living in the U.S.
The nonviolent work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leading the civil rights movement made it happen. Because of their fight for racial justice, my dad was able to come to New York City in 1969 and work hard for his American dream, with the rest of the family joining him three years later.
While growing up, I enjoyed the life of an affluent community and made an effort to assimilate to the main- stream culture. However, I was confused by my temporary and conditional proximity to "White privilege" and enjoyed the benefits at the expense of Black people. I became both a victim and perpetrator of racism. I was not sure how to react to the "Model Minority Myth" that seems like praise but is used to pit Black people against us. "Divide and conquer" to minoritize and disempower all non-White individuals has been in practice too long, obscuring justice.
In the racial justice charter by United Women in Faith, we state that we believe "that racism robs all human beings of their wholeness and is used as a justification for social, economic and political exploitation."
We Korean Americans ought to recognize our own and all Asian Americans' hard work, endurance, courage and cultural values, and celebrate our contributions and accomplishments in the midst of racism. We also ought to remember that Black Americans fought the good fight for all people of color.
Susan Sungsil Kim is a member of St. John’s Korean United Methodist Church in Lexington, Massachusetts. She is also a member of the Racial Justice Charter Support Team of United Women in Faith and co-chair of the Korean Ministry Plan Racial Justice Task Force.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary are not necessarily the opinions of the publisher.
COVID masquerading as the predator in 1 Peter 5:8
‘Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’
It is past the time for clergy in America to stop playing Russian Roulette concerning COVID-19 with the lives of their congregants.
The writer is not a member of the ordained clergy, but rather a lay Christian believer in the Word of God bearing due diligence in its study and meditation with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our Creator also endowed each of us with a mind and common sense.
With respect to the COVID pandemic, the faith community is divided—a mirror of the national optic; some advocating vaccinations, social distancing, and the wearing of masks, while others assail any and all protective measures, relying instead on their God-faith for complete protection. The latter is what many of their pastors are preaching to them on Sunday morning from the pulpit. What’s at work here is Faith and Foolishness.
Now consider the incontrovertible truth.
Those who professed a belief in a living God are numbered among the more than 1 million COVID fatalities in the US, alone. Presumably, that number swells around the globe. Bishops, pastors, priests, and missionaries have perished from COVID, which is acting like the predator spoken of in 1 Peter 5:8, none other than Satan: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour.”
COVID is a predator, re-creating itself as ever more aggressive killer variants seeking unprotected humans to devour like unprotected sheep by bears, wolves, and coyotes.
The clergy must not side-step the warnings of the Bible contained in 1 Corinthians and John 8: 44:
“For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” 1 Corinthians 14:33
“Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.” John 8: 44
Pastors, urge your congregants to get inoculated so that those that may be carriers of the virus, but asymptomatic (not showing any signs) will not transmit the virus to the most vulnerable among them—seniors with conditions, and children.