In a heartfelt display of unity, several hundred community members crammed into the First Congregational Church of Chappaqua for a vigil Wednesday night to member the victims of last week’s massacre at two New Zealand mosques.
The Chappaqua Interfaith Council, consisting of about 10 different congregations in and around New Castle, organized the hour-long program to reject the growing rise of intolerance and hate crimes around the world and to assure the Upper Westchester Muslim Society (UWMS) and local Muslim residents that it stands behind them.
“I welcome you to this service where we will not allow hate to have the last word, we will not allow hate to keep us from worshipping in whatever way we each worship, to the one to whom we pray,” said Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs, First Congregational Church’s head pastor and co-chair of the interfaith council.
Words from local clergy, elected officials and community members were interspersed with prayer and song. Speakers called on everyone to do more to put an end to heinous acts such as last Friday’s attack that killed 50 people during the weekly Friday afternoon prayers. Yousef Hafez, a student at Byram Hills High School, said everyone must show greater love and kindness toward others.
“Unfortunately, many Muslims are afraid to practice their faith clearly in public, scared of the possibility that they could be attacked,” Hafez said. “As a Muslim and an Arab, it has not been easy to grow up in a community that lacks diversity. It has been hard to fit into a community with the negative image that people have of us.”
State Sen. Peter Harckham said the state’s recently passed tougher gun laws is one step, but making sure groups anywhere aren’t targeted will take greater resolve than laws.
“Part of it is the proliferation of guns, but it’s that soul silence that really affects our country and we need to do soul-searching and we need to ask everybody to do some soul-searching and we need to come together to find solutions and I look forward to being part of that,” Harckham said.
The gathering came less than five months after the Chappaqua Interfaith Council held a similar vigil following the shooting deaths of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. New Castle Supervisor Robert Greenstein said the town is fortunate to have the Chappaqua Interfaith Council where residents can follow its lead of mutual love and respect. The challenge is to spread that message to a much wider audience.
“We must take a stand against hatred, prejudice, rage and gun violence and the tragedy it brings,” Greenstein said. “These are the real national emergencies. Our voices must be heard and we cannot stop.”
There were people in the crowd not only from New Castle but throughout northern Westchester. Cortlandt resident Yvonne Harris-Jones said it was important for her to attend to not only support the local Muslim community but to reach out to people she doesn’t know.
“I think the more you know about other people the more you can understand what the difference is, what we think of differences are not,” she said. “If you don’t know a group of people then you’re more likely to believe the negative things. Once you get to know them, they’re people just like you.”
Yorktown resident Paula Desrochers-Yakout of the UWMS said she was overwhelmed by the solidarity of people of so many faiths and backgrounds who came out on a midweek evening to support them.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Desrochers-Yakout said. “It’s just a lot of love here in the room.”
Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe, of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester and co-chair of the Chappaqua Interfaith Council, said the shooting, which was “an attack on all of humanity,” must not allow to divide.
“Our hearts are bleeding for those 50 innocents who were killed and the many more wounded,” he said. “Our best wishes for their families, for our Muslim siblings in New Zealand and all over the world.”