Nearly 100 people formed a circle around the American flag on the Kentlands Clubhouse lawn Saturday night, Nov. 3, beneath a waning crescent moon.
The evening was crisp and clear, lit by nearly 100 handheld candles and with a spotlight shining up on the flag. Though the reason for the gathering was heartbreaking, the concern and love expressed by the community was as beautiful as the night.
In memory of the Pittsburgh synagogue hate crime victims and the Jeffersontown, Kentucky, hate crime victims, three community members—Sooky McFaden, Ruthzaly Weich and Alex Stavitsky-Zeineddin—organized the “Light the Night in Unity and Love” event that was held just a week after the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States on Oct. 27 and 10 days after two African American shoppers were killed at a Kentucky Kroger supermarket on Oct. 24; the killer had tried and failed to enter a Baptist Church in Jeffersontown shortly before shooting the Kroger victims.
“We thought it would be so powerful to come together today, a week after what happened in Pittsburgh,” Weich said. “I struggle with the whole thing because we see so much of this, and there is a special negative aspect about this because it is about race and religion.” Weich asked her pastor, Joel Almeida, to “give a reflection.”
Almeida’s message was one of unity. “What keeps us together is the value of life,” he said. “We are here to sympathize with the families. God forbid, it could be any one of us; I could not even imagine, but that’s why we’re here—to celebrate life, to say yes, we care for life, yes, we are united, we are one. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you believe, what matters is … we care for life and we care for each other. … I don’t know what you believe, but I believe in hope. I want to believe in something better.”
He spoke of the United States flag and how it represents all Americans. “We are United States, united people, we are one,” he said, adding that locally “the beauty of this community, of this united showing, people see each other, and we can see we are not alone, we all believe in the same thing, we all care for each other, we all care for our children. When someone is hurt, it hurts everyone.”
Almeida thanked those assembled for coming out. “Thanks so much for allowing me to see this, to see that you care just like me,” he said before 13 candles were lit, 11 for those who lost their lives at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and two for those who perished at the Kroger supermarket in Jeffersontown.
After Almeida’s reflection, some of those gathered spoke.
McFaden, one of the event organizers, said, “I am so incredibly moved and touched by how many of you came out this evening. We put this together in very little time. … There’s been so much in the news that just is heartbreaking and I think many of us are just asking what happened, whose America is this, this is not the country that we all know and love so I’m … very, very moved and grateful that you all have come out here to do something positive.”
Stavitsky-Zeineddin, another organizer, echoed McFaden’s sentiment. “I’m grateful to see the people that I know and those that I don’t know. … It’s nice to see that there are people out there who care. … We’re from different backgrounds but we’re all very human.”
A grandmother expressed concern about the world that her granddaughter is growing up in, but she added that the evening’s gathering gave her hope.
Nannette Horan, art teacher at Rachel Carson Elementary and director of the Positive Energy Art Studio (PEAS), said, “I have the privilege of working with kids every day, and I know that you’re worried about your grandchildren, about your kids, but that’s where I see the hope and the promise. … They’re really strong.” She cautioned everyone to take care with what we say and how we behave around kids; prejudice is a learned behavior.
The group sang the chorus from “Amazing Grace” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
Near the close of the gathering, City of Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman said, “I wasn’t planning to speak tonight, I was planning just to listen, but I think there are some things that I can say that might make people here feel a little bit better. One of the privileges that I have on the Mayor and Council city government is that we have a vantage point of a lot of goodness that’s happening in this community at all times, whether it’s our nonprofits or whether it’s cutting the ribbon on a new business or whether it’s coming to an event like this—which makes me immensely proud to be part of this community and I thank everyone here for coming out and organizing this. There is a lot of goodness in Gaithersburg, one of the most diverse cities in the United States. We are fortunate every day to live in the harmony that we live in and to have the experiences and the cultures and the different ideas and people we have all around us every day.
“We live in an amazing place,” he stressed, “but it is our responsibility to keep it that way.”