The traffic was fierce on Martin Luther King Boulevard as people flocked to the community-wide interfaith service at Mount Olivet Baptist Church. Olivet, had grown from humble beginning in the 1920s to one of the city’s largest African-American churches. Yet, the church was packed, overflowing with elected officials, police officers and FBI, military veterans, and media among the diverse crowd of Black & White, Christians, Jews, and Muslim. Together, we prayed over the loss of four marines and a wounded sailor, who would die just hours later. We prayed over the trauma to our entire community inflicted by lone gunman, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez.
In the tradition of African-American churches, the service was rousing with countless standing ovations, inspiring sermons and eulogies, and amazing music. Beginning with the opening song, the evening was an interfaith feast. Singer Kimberly Thomas and the church choir did Irving Berlin proud. Her soulful rendition of that Jewish Eastern European immigrant’s song, God Bless America, brought us to our feet.
Following the color guard from Ringgold High School, Pastor Kevin Adams offered a prayer for the public officials present: TN Governor Bill Haslam, Mayor Andy Berke, Senator Bob Corker, Senator Lamar Alexander, and Congressman Chuck Fleischmann. Mayor Berke set the tone saying, “The sense of violation can only be alleviated together.” He talked about “sitting shiva,” the Jewish tradition of sitting with a mourning family, showing that hope, love, and friendship can help us all through the sorrow. Sen. Corker spoke of America as a blessed nation, “here to be a blessing” even when evil is thrust on us. Sen. Alexander was heartbroken, but urged us to remember that we are “The best mid-size city in America.” Gov. Haslam quoted the prophet Jeremiah and asked us to seek the peace and answer hate with love. Congressman Fleischmann urged us to resolve to dream larger, pray harder, and never give up.
The church resounded with applause as each official tried to make sense of the tragedy. The ovation for Chattanooga’s Police Chief, Fred Fletcher, was deafening. This stern-looking man, who is relatively new to Chattanooga, has won over the city with the heroism of the police department. “We can speak about courage all day. Now, it’s time to talk about faith. The officers have faith that their actions will save lives. Echoing the US Marine’s motto, “Sempre Fi”, Fletcher assured us that the police would be “Always Faithful” to the trust that the community has in us.
A cadre of faith leaders then spoke beginning with Rabbis Bill Tepper of Mizpah and Susan Tendler of B’nai Zion Congregations. Christian pastors moved the audience to tears, to shouts of affirmation, and to our feet. They came from diverse denominations and multi-lingual churches, from the military and the university.
When Dr. Mohsin Ali of Chattanooga’s Islamic Society came to the microphone, the crowd leaned forward in their seats in tense silence. Ali, an immigrant to this country, shared his deep awareness of what happens when the rule of law is lost to violence. He cried out against the cowardly and disgraceful killer who had spread hate and division. Pledging allegiance to Chattanooga, Ali asked Muslims in the audience to stand. More than a third of the crowd stood, with several women sobbing tearfully.
Holding hands, we concluded with the iconic gospel song, “This Little Light of Mine.” Yes, we knew that unity was fragile. We understood that clashes over religion, national security, and international policies were inevitable. Yet, there was hope that this interfaith moment would prevent Chattanooga from being torn apart. Chattanooga Strong.