Cynthia M. Allen

Let’s carry on the unity, purpose that abduction sparked in Fort Worth neighborhood

Jeff King talks to residents after a press conference following a walk to celebrate Salem Sabatka’s safe return Sunday, May 19, 2019, at Ryan Place in Fort Worth. King was instrumental in helping police locate Salem.
Jeff King talks to residents after a press conference following a walk to celebrate Salem Sabatka’s safe return Sunday, May 19, 2019, at Ryan Place in Fort Worth. King was instrumental in helping police locate Salem.

It has been nearly two weeks since the abduction and safe return of little Salem Sabatka. Our community is still reeling in many ways, but in the passing days, it’s also been reflective, productive and quick to learn and apply lessons from this brazen crime to our civic life moving forward.

It’s gratifying to see neighborhoods like Ryan Place and Fairmount working with city and law enforcement officials to improve communication, as well as safety and security measures that could prevent future incidents and expedite the community’s reaction when they do occur.

It’s encouraging to see neighborhood associations and local businesses offering free self-defense training, especially for children and women, to empower and prepare them for an unlikely (but possible) confrontation with an unknown assailant, like that faced by Salem and her mom.

The city, police department and other local agencies, having realized inefficiencies and failings in their own alert systems, appear to be considering more sweeping procedural changes to the Amber Alert and other forms of public communication, as well.

All of this is good. It reminds us of how adversity can be transformative in substantial and constructive ways.

But I’m more intrigued by the subtle yet far more fundamental lessons our collective response to the kidnapping has (I hope) helped us to realize; lessons even more important for strengthening the fabric of our community than any policy change or neighborhood watch program could ever be.

Most striking to me from the community walk and rally the Sunday evening after the abduction were the images of Jeff King being embraced by the residents of Ryan Place and Fairmount.

King, readers will remember, was heralded as a hero for his role in helping to recover Salem. He was a high school classmate of Salem’s father but hadn’t seen him in years, and after learning of Salem’s abduction, King took to the streets with a friend and contacted police after identifying the kidnapper’s vehicle in a hotel parking lot.

Like so many parents from Ryan Place, Fairmount and other neighborhoods throughout the city, King felt called, as a father and a distant acquaintance, to act.

He felt a higher calling, too. “I feel like God allowed me to be a tool,” he told the crowd during the Sunday gathering, describing how he came to the WoodSpring Suites in Forest Hill, where he spotted the suspect’s car and alerted police.

Such divine intervention probably was not anomalous for King; he is a pastor at Bear Creek Bible Church in north Fort Worth.

I don’t know King’s politics, but it’s fair to assume that a leader of a conservative evangelical church probably has a worldview that differs quite dramatically from many of the residents of the Ryan Place/Fairmount community. For example, Bear Creek holds to the traditional Christian teaching that sex is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman.

Ryan Place and Fairmount, in addition to boasting an active and highly engaged citizenry, also are generally viewed as progressive neighborhoods in Fort Worth.

They were blanketed with Beto O’Rourke signs during the last election cycle and Bernie Sanders signs the election before that. And neighborhood social media sites can occasionally veer into territory that one could reasonably perceive as anti-Christian — certainly adversarial to conservatives.

But when a need arose, all of the differences that, in these polarizing times, too often separate people of differing beliefs melted away. They did for King. They did for neighborhoods in need.

Times of trial and challenge can deepen existing ideological rifts; they can leave us vulnerable to criticism and derision.

Trials can also remind us of what we have in common and help us to realize, above all else, our shared humanity.

I saw that in the community’s response to Salem’s kidnapping.

I saw that in the community’s embrace of King.

I hope to see it continue in times without trial, too.

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Cynthia Allen joined the Star-Telegram Editorial Board in 2014 after a decade of working in government and public affairs in Washington, D.C. She writes a weekly opinion column on a wide array of topics, including politics, faith and motherhood.