Reflections on life, meaning and purpose

Catholic parish helped families of hostages during Texas synagogue standoff

NEW YORK – At one moment during the synagogue hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, on Jan. 15 interfaith leaders stationed at nearby Good Shepherd Catholic Community Church entered into a theological discussion about why bad things happen to good people.

The togetherness that took place in the church that day between leaders of the Jewish, Islamic, Christian and Catholic communities – praying alongside one another and supporting each other for about 12 hours – was a positive takeaway from a tragic situation, according to Father Michael Higgins.

“We really need to recognize our commonality and stop being so angry and tied up with things that divide us but concentrate more on the thing that unites us – our common belief in God,” Higgins told Crux on Jan. 17.

The four hostages at Congregation Beth Israel escaped Saturday night after a 10-hour standoff between the gunman and police. The hostage-taker was 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram, who was killed by law enforcement after the hostages escaped.

The involvement of Higgins and the Good Shepherd Catholic community began just before noon, when law enforcement asked if he could provide a safe space for the family members of the hostages. Higgins gave them a private space in the church hall, which is less than a half-mile from the synagogue. From that point forward interfaith leaders came and went throughout the day, parish staff came in to handle the phones, and many people dropped off meals for the families.

“The feeling here was these are our neighbors,” Higgins said. “We were just trying to be present with [the families]. Give them the space that they need to support one another and then be here for any personal needs that they have.”

Higgins described the experience of “seeing the pain that the families were going through” as one that “really highlights the fragility of life.” Meanwhile, he and the others were also on “pins and needles throughout the day encouraging one another” until late in the evening when they got word that everyone was safe.

“It was a very uplifting and supportive environment and when we heard finally that the hostage situation was solved, there was a collective sigh of relief, hugs, prayer, thanking God, patting each other on the back,” Higgins said. “It was just a great relief and celebration.”

Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth told Crux in a statement that he is “grateful” for the response of Higgins and the Good Shepherd community, adding that he joins with “religious leaders of all faith in expressing relief and happiness at the safe rescue of the hostages.”

One of the hostages was Rabbi Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel, who Higgins described as a “friend of the community.” The Catholic and Jewish communities in Colleyville, he noted, have had a close relationship for many years.

Walker posted a message of gratitude to those involved on Facebook on Jan. 16.

“I am thankful and filled with appreciation for All of the vigils and prayers and love and support, All of the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, All of the security training that helped save us,” Walker wrote. “I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for the CBI community, the Jewish community, the Human Community. I am grateful that we made it out. I am grateful to be alive.”

Antisemitism is nothing new in the United States, and the Anti-Defamation League tracked 533 incidents of antisemitism in 2021. Speaking with Crux, Higgins said it’s important for Catholics to recognize and support other religions, especially “our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

“They are our older brothers and sisters in the faith. We are rooted in Judaism,” Higgins said. “Catholicism comes from that stock if you will, so we have a very deep connection to them, and I think it’s important for us to recognize that and to celebrate that as well.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg