Interfaith vigil counters hate with call for love, equality, and justice

—Bryan Haeffele photos

A vigil that enabled the community to stand together in the face of hate speech and hateful acts occurring in many parts of the country was warmly received by more than 100 people who filled the courtyard at Our Lady of Fatima Church Wednesday evening, Aug. 23.

Presented by Wilton’s interfaith community of clergy it featured both lay and religious speakers, although the message was a secular one of equality, justice, and love of fellow humans and outright opposition to hate and the idea of white supremacy.

“I think it’s a great event for people of all faiths to come together and show their support and be part of the community,” said Allyson McDowell of Wilton. “I loved that Father Reggie [Norman] and Lynne Vanderslice made a commitment to be a resource for the town.

“If it were here or at a mosque or Hindu temple … the point is that it’s happening — to show peace,” she continued.

Adrienne Reedy opened the vigil with the song What the World Needs Now Is Love, accompanied by Molly Mendola, and when the microphone cut out on her near the end, those in the audience raised their voices to help her complete the words.

Father Reggie Norman, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima, reminded those present that “our country was founded on the principle that every person has the right to pursue happiness. … We must be careful not to allow the rights of one or a few to overshadow the rights of many.

The remedy for hate “is not to silence it,” he said, it is “more speech. Speech that challenges the hate. Speech to educate the haters. Speech to expose their moral vacuity. More speech will create an atmosphere antithetical to hatred.”

He encouraged more gatherings like the vigil, where all are welcome, to talk matters over, and “set the tone for how we will govern ourselves.”

He closed with a quote from Albert Einstein: “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

“Let us as a community ensure that we do not watch but act.”

Steve Gidley, chair of deacons at Wilton Congregational Church led the group in an interfaith prayer asking “that we learn from what happened in Charlottesville. That next time this happens we do everything in our power to put it down, to not take the side of injustice, to not take the side of intolerance.”
Marching in the streets
State Senator Toni Boucher (R-26) said “it’s vital that we all stand together and speak with one voice on the events that have torn through the fabric of our society.”

She observed many in the community have a “deep connection” to World War II and Nazi persecution be they soldiers who helped liberate concentration camps or those with family members who had to explain to children what the tattoos on their arms meant.

“I never thought I would see Nazi and supremacists marching in the streets of America in my children’s and my grandchildren’s lifetime after my grandparents and cousins were brutally attacked by the Nazis on our family’s farm in Europe during this terrible war.

Referencing the civil rights movement of the 60s, she said, “the battle for upholding the rights and dignity of our fellow human beings rages on and is made worse by the top of our government who legitimized hate by words that condone neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups.

“We all should have zero tolerance for those carrying Nazi flags and symbolic torches that incite violence, terrorize synagogues or mow down innocents,” she continue. “These are not nice people and the leader of the free world should state that clearly. There is no equivalence. None.

“Whatever their circumstances, whatever their backgrounds, whatever their race, religion, nationality, sexual identity or orientation, we’re all equal in the eyes of God. We should all be equal in the eyes of our fellow men and women and treat others as we would be treated.”

She reminded everyone intolerance starts at home. “A child is not born with hate in their heart. It is taught and nurtured at a very young age.”

Boucher was followed by state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) who said she learned to equate Nazism with evil and characterized the white supremacist march in Charlottesville as “revolting and alarming and there is only one way to feel about it.”

As their elected representative, but even more so as a human being, she said she joined those who “abhor that violence and condemn in the strongest possible terms those acts of hate that have hurt and frightened and alarmed innocent people.

“There are absolutely no circumstances when it’s acceptable to tolerate or lend any credence to Nazis, white supremacists, KKK members, or any other racist or bigoted group. Any equivocation or ambiguity, like we heard last week on this score, is unacceptable and my stance is firm and clear on all they represent. There’s no place for Nazis or white supremacists anywhere in our country, in Connecticut or in Wilton, and we must stand together as a community in making sure racism and bigotry are not accepted here.”

The vigil, she said, was evidence that Wilton does not tolerate hatred and welcomes all.
The Rev. Shannon White of Wilton Presbyterian Church introduced the candlelighting ceremony by quoting James Thurber. “There are two kinds of light. The light — the glow that illumines and the glare that obscures.”

“Eleven nights ago we saw a glare that obscures, or at least attempted to obscure the light that was being shone and sung just steps away in houses of worship. Tonight we reclaim the light to be a symbol of love.”

After a few more words, candles that had been handed out to participants were lit and followed by a moment of silence.

First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice said the Board of Selectmen strive to be “civil in our discourse, respectful in our actions and understanding of our different points of view. We also encouraged the greater community to strive towards the same.”

Of the march on Charlottesville she said, “We reject your Nazi and white supremacist slogans and ideologies. We reject your torches and the actions they symbolize. We reject racism, bigotry and hate.”

For many in Wilton, she continued, “it was shocking to see such a display of bigotry in this day and age. But for many in our community and our country, it was not shocking. They know it too well. It is my hope that this terrible event can serve as a lightning rod for all of us to stand up as one, and, hopefully, reject hatred in our society once and for all.”

Wilton Police Chief John Lynch was joined by several officers at the vigil, he said, to promote peace. “Our country is great,” he said, “because of its diversity, our respect for others and our love and spirit for our community. Our officers are committed to peaceful solutions, and cooperation between citizens. We strive to understand different perspectives and work together to overcome challenges.”

Rabbi Rachel Bearman of Temple B’nai Chaim said Jewish children are taught “justice, justice, righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue. It is a commandment and it is our rallying cry. We stand strong and we commit to working toward a world filled with empathy, compassion, knowledge, and righteousness.”

Also attending, but who did not speak, were state Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125), Swami Balgopal of the Hindu Mandir Temple, The Rev. Peggy Fabrizio of Zion’s Hill United Methodist Church, the Rev. Alon White of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, and Hossein Sadeghi of the American Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies.

After the vigil, many people remained in the courtyard to socialize or gathered in Fellowship Hall for refreshments. Several were happy to share their thoughts.

Victoria Rossi thought “it was beautifully done. Every speaker was poignant. Even the police presence was positive.

She attended with Melissa Spohn who said she echoed Rossi’s thoughts but added, “what drove me here was being part of a new movement to choose love over hate and not be silent and complicit.”

“We need to be strong. We need to come together as a community. We will stand up to hate,” said Diane Martucci, who was with the other two women. “Silence is being complicit,” she said.

Tom O’Connell said the event “was very good to bring the community together. Father Reggie and all the speakers were terrific. To see this showing speaks of Wilton itself.”

His wife, Nancy O’Connell added, “it’s great to see the other clergy. It really made it about community.”

Those gathered had the opportunity to donate to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Anti-Defamation League, or Catholic Charities, three organizations the clergy chose for their work toward justice.