Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood came, once again, to Evanston last night.
The beloved television host would have been comforted by the sight and sound of the more than 800 Evanston community members and leaders--the "helpers," as he famously called them--who crammed Beth Emet synagogue's newly renovated sanctuary on a drizzly October night to mourn with, support, and gather strength from one another after a horrific week of terror. Evanston Police Department officers were deployed to the synagogue for extra security and were visible in the building's parking lot and lobby.
"Last night renewed my hope in humanity and increased my resolve to engage in the struggle until change comes," said Pastor Michael Nabors of Second Baptist Evanston, one of the speakers, after the vigil ended. "We are legion!"
With prayer, song, words of comfort, healing, inspiration, and a candle-lighting ceremony, the racially, ethnically, and spiritually diverse crowd mourned the brutal mass-shooting of 11 Jewish people--and injuring of six others including four police officers--by a white supremacist at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday morning.
The night's central themes were sorrow, support, solidarity, anger, and action. Speaker after speaker called on attendees to stand up, stand together, speak out, and vote to change the tidal wave of incivility and increasing violence that has swept the country spurred on by President Trump and made deadly by easy access to guns.
Speakers condemned the words and weapons that in just one week contributed to the mass shooting in Pittsburgh as well as to the shooting deaths of two Black Americans in a Kroger grocery store in Louisville by a white supremacist, and a series of crude bombs sent to high-profile people who've spoken out against Trump (also by a white supremacist). They also called for stronger gun legislation. And each speaker forcefully emphasized that change begins with each of us, right here in Evanston.
Rabbi London began the vigil by recounting the many previous times the Evanston community has come together to lift one another up after hate-fueled violence touches us.
"First they struck the World Trade Center Towers in New York, and we stood up for each other, and we gathered for a vigil at First Presbyterian Church of Evanston. Then they tried to ban Muslims from emigrating to this country, and we marched in Morton Grove and gathered at the Muslim Community Center," she said.
"Then a grand jury declined to charge police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and we gathered at the Unitarian Church of Evanston," she continued.
"Then Dylan Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and killed nine parishioners at prayer and we gathered at Second Baptist Evanston.
Then Omar Mateen killed members of the LGBTQ community at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and again we gathered at Second Baptist."
Then neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia and once again we were together as a community at Second Baptist Evanston."
And now, here we are tonight. Sometimes we gather because we know we need to be here. That when they come for any of us, they come for all of us. And so we stand together."
Mayor Steve Hagerty began his remarks by reciting, in Hebrew, the first line of the Mourner's Kaddish. He then asked all the non-Jewish vigil attendees to stand. Close to half the room rose.
"I wanted all of our Jewish friends and our neighbors to look around. We stand with you. We condemn unequivocally the anti-Semitism and hate that resulted in the injury and death of the Tree of Life congregants and emergency responders in Pittsburgh yesterday," he said.
"We will not cower to those who spew hate, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and violence. We speak out because history shows us that unity against injustice and oppression will prevail. I am sad and mystified and angry that our country's leaders let these types of mass shootings occur and suggest ludicrous solutions to our gun problem."
"Thoughts and prayers and vigils are a start but there must be more that can be done. Give you money, give your blood, give your vote, and give your elected officials a piece of your mind. But don't give up," said Mayor Hagerty.
Dilnaz Waraich, Muslim Community Center (MCC)'s Interfaith and Outreach Committee Chair broke the solemnity of the evening by asking everyone in the packed sanctuary to take a few minutes to look around and meet a new community member.
"The world is about relationship building," Waraich said. "Turn to your right turn to your left and find a new friend. Smile at them. Shake their hand. Hug them. Once you've met someone, you know their name, you smile, you break bread, you can't hate that person."
The room came alive with the buzz of chatter and laughter as strangers introduced themselves to one another.
"This incident of domestic terrorism must be condemned in the strongest way possible. We must move this poison from the national dialogue. The interfaith work that we do together is most critical right now," Waraich said.
Dr. Zaher Sahloul, past chairperson of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC) and founder of Syria Faith Initiative said that the perpetrator of Saturday's mass shooting is a reflection of a culture of hate.
"He's a reflection of a network of hate that we let fester among us and we did not challenge this network," Sahloul said. "My community, my family, the Muslim community in Chicago is with you in this dark time. My community has your back. You can lean on our community. We are with you. We are in the same boat called America," Sahloul said.
Pastor Nabors urged those gathered to act personally, to act locally to "fight against the systems and structures" that have perpetuated evil.
"I know that something is happening right here. We can change this thing by changing where we are. It starts with ourselves. It starts with our family, it starts with our local community. Because I believe that are more people of goodwill that exist in this world than people that are filled with evil," he said.
"We are all caught up in a web of mutual interdependence. If we come together we can make all the difference in the world. It's time to get mad."
Beth Emet's Rabbi Emeritus Peter Knobel agreed.
"Let the deaths of these 11 Jews not be in vain. Let the deaths of all the victims of hatred not be in vain. Let the rising acts of violence be a catalyst for collective action. It is time for religious leaders of all traditions to gather at or before the White House and demand that there be a national commission to confront hatred. It is time to say, ‘enough’."