‘We offered them a safe space’: Texas priest details parish's role helping synagogue hostage families

When a gunman entered a nearby synagogue in Texas and took four people hostage, including the rabbi, Father Michael Higgins and his Catholic parish sprang into action. 

“We got a call from the police that they were looking for a safe space for the wife and daughter of Rabbi Charlie and for the spouses of the hostages out over at the synagogue,” the Franciscan friar said during his homily on Jan. 16, the day after the attack. “We offered them a safe space.”

The family members hid at his parish, Good Shepherd Catholic Community in Colleyville, Texas, located just a minute’s drive away from the synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel. They stayed for more than 12 hours, he said, as the parish staff cared for them.

“I really want to mention this because I think it really is an indication of how well the message of how we should deal with those in need has really seeped through the community here,” Higgins said.

The gunman, identified as 44-year-old British citizen Malik Faisal Akram, attacked during synagogue services that were live streamed. Law enforcement fatally shot Akram, who appeared to demand the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a convicted terrorist imprisoned in Texas after being found guilty of attempting to murder American soldiers and officials in Afghanistan. 

The hostages were uninjured.

During the more than 10-hour standoff between Akram and authorities, Good Shepherd opened its doors to law enforcement, media, faith leaders of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and the hostages’ family members.

The parish attempted to separate the press from the family members.

“What we were trying to do is give the families a safe space and we didn't want the press to be notified that they were there,” Higgins said. “So we sort of blocked off the church hall and allowed the press to use the facilities in that area.”

He wanted the families to have their own space, he said, “because you can imagine the terror that they were going through.” 

But Higgins also stressed the good during the attack.

“I think these events really show what the worst that humanity can do and what the best of humanity as well,” he said. 

He thanked parish staff and members of the parish community — as well as those that brought them food during the attack.

“Christianity has a lot of traditions within it that we receive from our Jewish brothers and sisters,” he added. “And one thing that really highlighted that yesterday was that we were deluged with food.” 

“All of that is to point out that there is a lot of good and there's a lot of good that goes on behind the scenes that's not celebrated,” he concluded. “Too often we focus only on the negative things and we don't celebrate all the positive things.” 

He credited the example of the faith of the Blessed Mother. 

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“I can't say that I'm more proud of what this community was able to do,” he added.

As soon as all of the hostages were declared safe, Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth took to Twitter to thank God and the local Catholic church led by Higgins.

“Thank you to the parishioners of [Good Shepherd] and their pastor Fr. Michael Higgins, TOR, for their assistance and charitable support for first responders and families of hostages,” he tweeted.

The bishop retweeted Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, who also expressed gratitude.

“We thank God for the safety of the members of Beth Israel in Texas,” the cardinal wrote. “Thanks also for the successful work of those public safety officials.  We stand with our Jewish neighbors as they confront violence. May all who suffer hatred in their places of worship know of our prayers.” 

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