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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Season of Travail
November 1, 2018

This week the President weighed whether to come to Pittsburgh to express the nation’s support of a community gravely wounded by the mass killing of worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27. Some encouraged him to come, while others urged him not to come while freshly grieving mourners were still burying their dead. He chose to come and pay his respects on October 30, while funerals or funeral preparations for victims were underway.

Susan, one of our ministers, lives just five houses down from Tree of Life, and her neighbors are part of its family. They were actively participating in the seven-day Jewish Shiva mourning rites, when they were put on forced lockdown due to the Presidential motorcade’s planned drive through the neighborhood. Under lockdown, they were unable to keep Shiva with mourning families. As the Presidential procession drove by her home, Susan shouted her dismay at the disruption his visit caused to her grieving neighbors, hoping that the President could hear her voice through his sound-proofed car doors. A TV camera captured her loud denunciation of the visit without showing that she was trying to get the attention of the retinue passing by her home. That video, identifying her as a Presbyterian minister, went viral on the internet. Within twelve hours, it had been viewed nearly 2 million times, and nearly 50,000 responses had been posted.

Susan subsequently interviewed with another TV network to explain that she was protesting the timing of the visit and the disruption it caused, and would welcome a presidential visit once the Shiva period had passed. As she has done consistently among us as a presbytery, she modeled in that interview the grace of reaching out to understand those whose perspectives differ from her own, while maintaining her own convictions.

From the moment the first video clip went online, our Presbytery Facebook page was inundated with responses, some vile and vengeful, many expressing their outrage at the church as a whole. The incendiary character of many of the posts is chilling. As they continued to snowball, we made the difficult decision to suspend our Facebook page temporarily.

In addition to the rush of anger unleashed on Facebook, our office has been swamped with phone calls and emails excoriating Susan, our presbytery, and our denomination.

The pent-up anger this has revealed is astonishing. Susan’s protest has had the effect of a breach in a dam, and the torrent of hate-filled speech it has unleashed is vast and truly alarming. Something is gravely wrong in our society, and the church needs to display an utterly alternative way of handling our differences.

Susan has been and remains a treasured member of our presbytery family. She has asked to be temporarily relieved of leadership responsibility within the presbytery, leadership for which I and many others have been profoundly grateful. She and her family are under attack, and they need our prayers.

We will put our Facebook page back online soon. It is an important communications hub for us. But for now, we need to remove our page from being a repository of rancor.

I am grief-stricken for our city, especially for the members and neighbors of Tree of Life who have suffered deadly assault grounded in unmitigated hate. And I am grief-stricken over the volume and venom of attack that has poured forth from across the country in response to one of our own expressing her dismay over the disruption caused by the presidential visit. May our Lord help us all in this hour of unspeakable grief.

Yours in mourning,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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