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One Year After

No one wants to excel at planning interfaith memorial vigils.

We’d all rather that there was no need for them.

And yet, in the past year, my colleagues and I have honed that skill to a fine art. We know who to call to get the planning started. We can suggest songs and scripture readings from any and all of our different traditions. We know how to find candles to light, baskets to collect an offering, people to hand out bulletins. We can send press releases, craft gentle welcomes and offer fierce calls to action. We don’t want to do any of it, but we know now just how it’s done.

That’s not a new skill for our community, of course; we didn’t start from scratch last October. Our interfaith community had lamented together before, after the shootings at Mother Emmanuel in Charleston and at Pulse in Orlando, to name just a couple examples. Through these earlier vigils, other collaborative projects and even the occasional celebration, we forged the relationships that allowed us to respond so quickly one year ago, and with such genuine caring for each other.
However, the response to the 10/27 shootings was on a new scale. This time, the vigils lasted for weeks: not just the big ones at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum and Point State Park, but dozens of smaller services too, hosted by churches, synagogues, mosques and temples across the region. Again and again we gathered, spoke aloud our common commitment to compassion and respect, lit candles and remembered the dead.

There is a kind of unreasonable hope, a magical thinking, that each vigil might be the last: that violence might actually end, that something will shift inside human nature so that we will no longer need to gather this way. But of course, that’s not how it works. Just 10 days after 11 people died in the shooting in Pittsburgh, 12 more were killed by gunfire in Thousand Oaks, California. Anti-Semitic incidents, other hate crimes and violence in houses of worship have continued, too. There seems to be no end to the need to keep vigil.

So we keep on. In the past year, we’ve gathered for Christchurch. For Poway. For Sri Lanka. The same faces, the same flickering lights, the same scripture passages, the same songs. It’s easy to get discouraged by the depressing mundanity of shared grief. It’s easy to echo the cry of the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord?”

And yet, in the midst of this grim repetition, I see a sign of hope. Its source is simple: We keep on stubbornly showing up. We keep on exercising the muscles of mutual care, strengthening our ability to love one another. We keep on imagining a better world, one that reflects more closely God’s dream of wholeness and peace. The grief we share in these public gatherings is evidence of our unbroken shared humanity. Our lament knits us together. It’s our love for neighbor and stranger that leaks from our bodies, absorbed by the tissues we’re so eager to share.

There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the 20th century pacifist and pastor A. J. Muste. (I learned that Jewish author Elie Wiesel tells a similar story about a Just Man’s visit to Sodom and Gomorrah.) It’s said that, during the Vietnam War, when he was in his 80s, Rev. Muste came to the sidewalk outside the White House each evening, and stood there for an hour, holding a single lit candle. After many days, a police officer approached him. “All you’re doing is standing there,” he said. “Do you really think you’re going to change the world that way?” Rev. Muste replied, “I’m not doing this to change the world. I’m here so that the world does not change me.”

That’s why we gather, over and over, each time a grave act of evil harms our neighbors. Our vigils, however moving and well-organized, are unlikely to change the world. But they are our way of insisting that that violence and bigotry do not get the last word. Despite all who would do harm, we will continue in our kindness, our mercy and our justice-seeking. Just as our scriptures affirm, and as our T-shirts and lawn signs proclaim, love is stronger than hate.

Last year, at Soldiers & Sailors, I spoke about the biblical tree of life. I imagine that tree taking root among us each time we host a community vigil. I imagine each healing leaf of that tree shining in the light of our candles, and the wind in her branches echoing back our prayers and songs. We will gather underneath that tree as often as we need to, again and again and again: Like a tree standing by the waters, we will not be moved. pjc

The Rev. Liddy Barlow serves as executive minister of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania.

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