The South Orange-Maplewood Clergy Association remembered victims of the Charleston, NC, massacre with a vigil at the South Orange train station that drew about 125 people.
Held late Friday afternoon, June 19 — two days after a white gunman murdered nine African-Americans following Bible study at the historic Emanuel AME Church — the vigil included words of comfort, poetry, meditation, and song by participating clergy, including rabbis, cantors, pastors, an imam, and teachers from a local Buddhist center.
“We’re left to ask, as we see blood splattered in God’s house, blood splattered on God’s words — on Scripture following Bible study — where is God in a community that seeks God, in a place that is God’s house?” said Rabbi Jesse Olitzky from Congregation Beth El in South Orange. “The answer: God is here with us. And as we watch the news and wail, as our tears drip into puddles on the front page of newspapers, God is also crying, right by our side.”
He concluded, “As God comforts us and we comfort God, may we remember we are God’s messengers, for when we act to change this world, God acts. But when we sit around in disbelief and do nothing and wait for such a tragedy to happen again, God cries.”
Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation, also in South Orange, led a responsive reading with the refrain, “We cannot merely hope,” and the penultimate stanza, “Therefore let us summon/ the wisdom, the will, and the courage/ to do and to become,/ not only to look on/ with helpless yearning/ as though we had no strength.”
“This gathering is necessary but it is not enough,” Cooper said, urging further action.
Dr. Terry Richardson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of South Orange, spearheaded the vigil.
“Here we are again, remembering the lives lost in yet another tragedy,” he said. “Truth be told, our words fail us, yet somehow we must speak out during times like this. It is impossible to remain silent amid such horrific acts generated by racism.”
Richardson suggested that the vigil marked the beginning of a larger communal response to the events in Charleston.
Dan Segal, a resident of Maplewood and a member of Congregation Beth El, was among those who attended the vigil. “I needed to be with other people today, just to express solidarity with like-minded people,” he said. “It’s good to do this stuff face to face, out in public.”
Louis Piels, a member of Oheb Shalom, came from Livingston to participate after receiving an e-mail from Cooper. He came, Piels said, out of “the importance of expressing unity, our sorrow and our condolences to a community not unlike ours. If it could happen there, it could happen here, or anywhere. The only way to fight it is by people standing together in a call for peace and action.”
Piels said the makeup of the crowd and of the clergy association offered exactly the right message.
“Look at all the different faces, and diversity, and different religions coming together. That shows people do want to unite. It’s a shame when we let someone with hatred in their heart come between us,” he said.
Also taking part were Rabbi Daniel Cohen and Cantor Joan Finn of another South Orange synagogue, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel. In a blog post inviting congregants to the vigil, Cohen urged participants “to express outrage, to pray that goodness and tolerance prevail in our country, and to recommit ourselves to doing all we can to achieve a nation of safety and equality.”
The Rev. Sandye Wilson, rector of the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew and Holy Communion, mentioned the irony of the vigil falling on the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when Union soldiers in Texas relayed the belated news that the war had ended and the state’s slaves were free.
“Free and equal…we stand here on this day remembering those who believed themselves to be free and equal and are with us no longer,” she said.
Also attending were Peter Kurczynski of the Dharmachakra Buddhist Center; the Rev. Molege Desir of the South Orange-Vailsburg United Methodist Church; Imam Abdullah Toure from Irvington; the Rev. Valencia Norman of the First Presbyterian and Trinity Church in South Orange; and the Rev. Bernard Poppe, rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Maplewood.
Cantor Rikki Lippitz of Oheb Shalom Congregation closed the vigil with “We Shall Overcome.”
Before departing, participant Moriyah Webster of Newark, a member of Oheb Shalom Congregation, said, “The community needs to stand together at times like this.”
While he said the vigil was helpful, Webster added that he thought there is still work to be done. “How could I feel healed when the Confederate flag is still flying in South Carolina?”