Church targeted by alleged terrorist unites in worship, welcomes Muslim neighbors
Knowing they were the target of an accused terrorist’s foiled bomb plot did not deter the congregants of a North Side church from worshipping Thursday night.
As rain pounded the pavement outside, a few dozen men, women and children who belong to Legacy International Worship Center filed through the red double door of their modest, stone-facade church building on Wilson Avenue with gratitude and gusto. Upbeat music played on an organ while they exchanged hellos and hugs. They cheered from their yellow-striped chairs as lead Pastor Michael Anthony Day, who founded the predominantly black church of about 100 members four years ago, took the stage.
“I am indeed grateful to be here. That is a whole different thing to say today,” Day told congregants, to boisterous clapping and shouts of praise.
“Just to be able to see the congregation, I’m just happy.”
‘We’re all in this together’
Day and his security officer decided not to cancel Legacy’s weekly “Power Hour” service the day after federal investigators arrested Syrian-born Pittsburgh resident Mustafa Mousab Alowemer and charged him with plotting to blow up the church next month in support of ISIS.
The 21-year-old refugee — who entered the United States three years ago and graduated from Brashear High School earlier this month — allegedly had been plotting since April with an undercover FBI agent he thought was a supporter of the terrorist group ISIS. He is set to be arraigned Friday morning.
“This is Pittsburgh and so we’re Pittsburgh-strong,” said Timothy Caldwell, a visiting pastor from New Life Ministries in Duquesne. “And we’re going to continue to do what we have to do to protect the people but also to maintain our worship.”
Devout Legacy regulars were joined by newcomers — including practicing Muslims who came to show their support.
“We’re just blessed to have them come, and we say welcome,” said Linda Law, 67, a minister from Wilkinsburg, who attends Legacy services Thursdays and Sundays along with her daughter and mother, 87-year-old Jean Kirkland.
Mariam Shalaby of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh condemned the alleged plot as “shocking and atrocious.” She said she wanted to be there Thursday to express the importance of interfaith relationships grounded in what people share in common rather than what sets them apart.
“It’s important not only in times of tragedy, or times of potential tragedy in this case, but in all times to stand together as a united front,” said Shalaby, who made several new friends at the service. “It’s a time of real confusion, but as we saw in the service today, perhaps it’s a time more for gratefulness and mutual support for our neighbors.”
A much larger showing of solidarity is planned for Sunday, when Pittsburgh-area Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other faiths and community groups plan to be with the Legacy congregation before and during their noon service.
“We’re all in this together. We’re all connected in one way or another, no matter what church we go to, what synagogue we go to, what we believe in,” Day told the congregation.
“This incident did not just happen to Legacy or to our family or to our community, it happened to our region.”
‘… to destroy your building …’
Day was in his car driving to lunch Wednesday when he got an unexpected call from an FBI agent.
“I stopped, pulled the car over and began to talk to the agent, and he began to explain to me what transpired,” Day told the Tribune-Review shortly after Thursday’s service ended.
At first, Day thought perhaps there had been a bomb threat or suspicious package situation that didn’t turn out to be credible, like incidents he’s heard of happening Downtown.
“No, it wasn’t just that. It was a whole plot and operation to destroy your building, congregation and anything tied to it,” Day recalled the FBI agent telling him.
“I was just like blown away and instantly became overwhelmed,” said Day. “And then I became like — wow, happy to be alive, happy that my family’s good, happy that my congregation is good, happy that my community is unharmed.”
Day told the congregation that it’s not the first time he’s been threatened with violence.
“But it is my first time experiencing such a burden because not only was my life threatened, but over 100 folks’ lives were threatened,” Day said.
Legacy is in the works of beefing up security measures and emergency training for its members, with many local people and nonprofit and faith-based leaders reaching out to offer resources, including the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.
Power Hour is a one-hour, high-energy service of preaching and music aimed to offer encouragement and motivation.
“You might have had a rough week, a busy week, but you’ve got that one hour of power just to recharge you,” Day said.
This week’s service was similarly high-octane, with congregants dancing in the aisles, throwing their hands in the air and jumping up and down to the music.
The service slowed and got quieter toward the end, when Day’s voice took on a sober tone.
He took a moment to honor the Jewish victims of the mass shooting in October at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue, where a gunman killed 11 people and wounded several others.
“We honor their lives,” Day said. “We speak peace to their family and to their whole community.”
Shalaby likened extremists who claim to be Muslim to white nationalists who claim to be Christian. Neither represent the religion or what it teaches, she said.
“The so-called ‘Muslims’ who carry out these kind of acts don’t know true Islam,” Shalaby said. “And I invite anyone who wants to know more about true Islam to ask a Muslim, to come visit us at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, and we will welcome you and teach you what we are actually about.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .