Comfort in coming together

Vigils, gatherings and ad hoc demonstrations offer solidarity and prayer -- from New York to Texas to San Francisco.

Published September 14, 2001 2:05AM (EDT)

It's been apparent, since Tuesday's terrible attacks on the U.S. sent ripples of fear, anger and sadness throughout the country, that most people affected don't want to handle it alone.

An e-mail has been circulating on the Net that says "Friday night at 7 p.m. step out your door, stop your car, or step out of your establishment and light a candle. We will show the world that Americans are strong and united together against terrorism. Please pass this to everyone on your e-mail list. We need to reach everyone across the United States quickly. The message: We Stand United -- We Will Not Tolerate Terrorism."

The calls to gather come on the streets as well as online. David Gottlieb, who works in the Times Square area, says he walked to 43rd Street Tuesday night and found two New York Times trucks selling papers out of the back, and there were 150 people lined up to buy them. Someone was handing out fliers to them saying to gather at 7 p.m. Friday to show solidarity. He also describes an ad hoc gathering of New Yorkers: "The big thing is that on the West Side Highway people came out and made signs and cheered the rescue workers on. Every time a vehicle passed -- fire, police, even Con Ed -- people yelled out, 'You are our heroes.'"

Three thousand miles away from the West Side Highway, almost 3,000 people gathered inside (and around) Grace Cathedral in San Francisco Wednesday evening for an interfaith service of mourning. Barbara Hartford, a spokesperson for the United Religions Initiative and an organizer of the event, said, "It was a ceremony to the glory of God. We started with a Muslim call to prayer, a Buddhist monk led a chant and there was a lighting of candles for everyone there. We could see one person light the candle of the next one and it grew and grew, carrying the light all the way out to everyone there. That's what we know how to do. I get strength in literally holding hands."

Another speaker at Grace Cathedral was Iftekhar Hai, director of Interfaith Relations for the United Muslims of America. He left San Francisco to attend a candlelight vigil at a Muslim community center in Santa Clara: "There were about 1,000 people there and they all prayed together. A lot of Muslim Americans have lost their loved ones. I see the possible understanding between faiths as a silver lining in a dark cloud," he says, mentioning that he will talk at a Buddhist monastery in Berkeley and at a Presbyterian church in Burlingame this week. "I talk about shock, anger and despair and how to channel this energy in a positive way."

Not every vigil encounters a positive response. Prof. Robert Jensen, a journalism teacher at the University of Texas in Austin, describes a candlelight vigil on campus Tuesday night where the student body was out in force to hear the president of the school and the governor. "I work with one undergrad who is a pretty thoughtful young man. He was on campus that night and he and three or four others wrote out signs that said 'War is not the answer' and were standing there after the vigil. A group of students came up to him and said, 'If you don't want to stand behind our president, get the fuck out of the country.' This student said, 'We just want to talk about how to solve problems,' and someone from the student government got in his face and had to be pulled away." He adds, "There was a nice ending to it, though. After the belligerent students left, my student and some others started talking and had a good discussion out there."

Jensen put out a call to 4,000 antiwar activists in the Austin area Wednesday and after eight hours had 250 gathered in a small room to share their ideas: "People who work in mainstream places were hearing their friends and co-workers saying, 'We gotta go kick their ass,' and it was hard for some of these people to speak up. But in our group they felt safe. We organized a speak-out for Friday and for a demonstration if the government takes military action."

Bette Hoover, director of the Washington office of the American Friends Service Committee, also put out a call Wednesday and got 100 people to gather and talk within a few hours. Later, a smaller group made signs that said things like, "Let's mourn together," "We mourn all the victims" and expressions of nonviolence from Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover says, "I was amazed. We had a lot of people want to give us their e-mails, but we also had lots of people call us scum and spit on us and yell at us and call us un-American. It was difficult to be there. But I'll take people spitting on me if that's what it takes. Someone needs to hold on. War is not the only choice."

Rabbi Michael Lerner also put out a call and gathered a few hundred people together on Tuesday evening in San Francisco to share their feelings. He said there was a lot of grief and anger but that the most interesting discussion was about America's role in the world.

"Many people, though they had no sympathy for the terrorists, also talked about how amazing it was that Americans have no understanding of the worldwide system they are a part of that causes institutionalized violence. I was amazed. I would have thought this kind of discussion would come from social theorists, but it came from my congregants."

Lerner says that there was also a lot of emotion. "Many people were crying -- they have connections with people who live in New York. It wasn't an abstract discussion we had, but part of the emotion was about a certain kind of upset at Americans not realizing the violence we cause in the rest of the world. There was also a fear that they would be blamed because this was caused maybe by America's ties with Israel. There was concern about the fate of Arab-Americans. I have to say it was a selfish concern too because some said that if a chain of bigotry is let loose it can spiral out of control against us."

Rabbi Lerner adds, "We talked about how much goodness there is in America and how you saw pouring out of these people [in New York] the courage, trying to save people at the risk or reality of losing their own lives. The cynicism that everyone has must be seen for the lie that it is. The task now is to allow people to act on those same feelings at a time when it's not because of a disaster."

Back at ground zero in New York, there were moments of coming together and reaching out throughout the city. Salon editor Jeff Stark was at Union Square, along the police boundary of 14th Street. He saw that an artist had made a beautiful candle sculpture, about 6 or 7 feet tall, and hundreds had gathered around it. In front, there were large sheets of butcher paper, each about 10 feet long by 3 feet wide, and people were writing prayers or messages on it as well as thank you's to police and firemen.

Joe Zwilling, a spokesperson for St. Patrick's Cathedral, says that St. Patrick's scheduled prayer services every half-hour on Tuesday and has planned special services on Sunday and Monday for the injured and those who gave their lives. But along with the formal events, he says, "Our priests are out there, responding to the needs of the people. We had a great number of priests who went to places like the Armory where people are going to find their loved ones and to police precincts and fire houses to minister to these people whose work is so difficult emotionally." He adds, "We even have a priest, Father Murray, who has been riding his bicycle around to the hospitals."

By Karen Croft

Karen Croft is the editor of Salon Sex.

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