Last night, I (and a few hundred other people) went to a candlelight vigil sponsored by Temple Emanuel, Congregation Ahavas Israel, Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids, and Chabad House of Western Michigan in response to the murder of 11 people at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh last week. As with the other outdoor candlelight vigil I went to this past summer, it was too breezy to keep my candle lit. But unlike the last time, I was prepared: I’d downloaded a flashlight app on my phone so I held the candle next to that light. One intrepid boy had brought a battery-powered candle.
Some in the crowd passed out tin foil squares to put around the candles to protect them from the breeze, but they interfered with the sound system, creating feedback and causing it to go out for several minutes after the speakers began, so those had to go away. I watched Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky try to fix the speakers, with no luck. By the fourth speaker, the microphones were working, but I know I missed some good words.
On the one hand, it was a beautiful event. Any time people come together to support one another in mourning and try to reach for hope is a good thing. But people are, well, people. There were mutterings about not being able to hear. The Jewish women I stood near had varying opinions about the speakers and what they had to say. I was impressed that each speaker spoke fully out of their religious tradition: the Imam told the story of Cain and Abel using names from the Koran (different from the Torah and Bible names), and the Hindu woman prayed to God as Mother and omm-ed (which echoed around Calder Square).
Rabbi Michael Schadick of Temple Emanuel was the first to speak, his first words very simple: “We are here for shalom.” Shalom is one of those words that we can’t unpack with only one English word: peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, wellbeing, and tranquility.
He spoke about the man who murdered 11 worshippers at Tree of Life Temple in Pittsburgh:
“He hoped to kill our spirit, but he strengthened it.”
The cantor of Temple Emanuel lead the crowd in a song of Psalm 133 (CJB). Read the words while you listen to the song:
Oh, how good, how pleasant it is
for brothers to live together in harmony.
It is like fragrant oil on the head
that runs down over the beard,
over the beard of Aharon,
and flows down on the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon
that settles on the mountains of Tziyon.
For it was there that Adonai ordained
the blessing of everlasting life.
Rev. David Baak, executive pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church was the next to speak, and after him was Rev. Joe Jones, Second Ward City Commissioner. Jones quoted George Washington Carver:
Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater.
Jones also spoke about forgiveness being integral to the ability to love, which is true, but the women around me were not ready to hear that. I’ve certainly had seasons when I was not ready to talk forgiveness, when I had to ask God to make me even want to want to forgive. But how do you forgive a man who hates your people enough to murder them in their place of worship? To scream his hatred of Jews while being cared for by Jewish medical professionals? How do you forgive a murderer when you know that there are others out there like him, and because of that, you have to have armed guards at your synagogue? It feels like forgiving the ideology and culture that spawned those beliefs and that hatred.
Imam Morsy Salem of PLACE spoke next. It was such an interesting experience to listen to him unpack the story of Cain and Abel, aka Qābīl and Hābīl, but his message was clear: do not hate each other, do not kill each other.
Rabbi Yosef Weingarten of Chabad House said about prayer that it isn’t merely an opportunity to ask for what you need:
Prayer provides us with the opportunity to align our body and our soul with the…God above. In these moments of unspeakable pain, as we search for answers, we take refuge in our traditions–[in our Jewish tradition, mourning is not just about pain], but hope and conviction.”
He encouraged all of us to add just one small act of kindness in our daily lives to build each other up. In honor of the members and police officers who were injured in the shooting at Tree of Life, Rabbi Weingarten and Chief Rahinsky read Psalm 121 (CJB) as a prayer, the Rabbi in Hebrew and the Chief in English:
If I raise my eyes to the hills,
from where will my help come?
My help comes from Adonai,
the maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip —
your guardian is not asleep.
No, the guardian of Isra’el
never slumbers or sleeps.
Adonai is your guardian; at your right hand
Adonai provides you with shade —
the sun can’t strike you during the day
or even the moon at night.
Adonai will guard you against all harm;
he will guard your life.
Adonai will guard your coming and going
from now on and forever.
Following him were Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute and Rev. Colleen Squires of All Souls Community Church. Rev. Squires is a regular attender at Grand Rapids Association of Pastor meetings, so I know her a little bit. I was moved by the emotion in her voice as she talked about the hospitality of Congregation Ahavas Israel, which has given All Souls the space to worship for the last 13 years, and how it was both right and weighty to walk into their mutual building for services the day after the shooting.
Then came Teresa Thome of Self-Realization Fellowship (representing the Hindu faith) and Dr. Doug Kinshi of GVSU’s Kaufman Interfaith Center.
Rabbi David Krishev of Congregation Ahavas put it in stark words:
The question, ‘Am I willing to give up my life for my faith,’ is a question we don’t want to hear, and don’t want to answer. It is a question we thought we’d left behind.
He went on to list the people of various faiths who are being killed due to their beliefs. His desire was simple: “We, as people who believe in the power of religious community, want to continue to gather at our places of worship openly…and safely.”
Rabbi Schadick closed the event with a song from the end of the mourner’s Kaddish, lead by a soloist from Temple Emanuel:
He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.
It was a wonderful event, full of talk of love and respect and standing together against hate. I loved the use of Adonai instead of “the Lord” in the passages read; if felt so intimate. My favorite part was the singing–listening to those ancient words being sung all around me, all known by heart, was powerful. Those words have been said and sung in that form for many thousands of years. Those words and those messages have survived. They’ve survived many attempts to eradicate them and those who speak them, and they’ll survive this one, too.
I’ll add a few more from Psalm 95:7-8 (NLT) as my prayer for my fellow Christians who are consumed with fear and hate:
If only you would listen to his voice today! The Lord says, “Don’t harden your hearts…”