Area residents gathered in downtown Shepherdstown Monday night for a solemn vigil organized in memory of the 11 lives ended Saturday morning in the nation’s latest mass shooting.
An antisemitic gunman opened fire on the Tree of Life synagogue, the center of a quiet Jewish enclave in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where the famously kind, gentle Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame raised his family and lived until his death in 2003.
Earlier on Monday, NBC reported that Florida resident Cesar Sayoc Jr., the man accused of sending pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and CNN last week, had a long list of planned targets – more than 100 people including politicians, entertainers and members of the media.
Sayoc, a registered Republican and Donald Trump superfan, was charged Friday with mailing the crude pipe bombs to more than a dozen homes and offices, all of them critics of the president, and including President Barack and Michelle Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CNN.
But though these are incredibly dark times, our country has made it through similar discouraging periods including the ugliness of the 1950s when civil rights protesters were beaten viciously and even killed in the Deep South and more than a century ago when the nation spent four long years in civil war.
The decency and generosity of Americans always shines through – and that is true today. Besides rallies right in Jefferson County and all over the country to offer support for the victims and their families, a Muslim organization in Pittsburgh launched a fundraising campaign, quickly raising more than $100,000.
We are reminded of the words of Martin Luther King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
A caring Spirit reader wrote to us on Monday to offer a reminder of a notable letter that then President Washington sent to a Jewish congregation on Aug. 21, 1790.
In the fall of 1789, Washington had toured all the New England states – but skipped over Rhode Island, which had not then ratified the new Constitution.
When Rhode Island did finally ratify the document, Washington made a goodwill visit to the state, taking with him then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and George Clinton, the governor of New York. The trio sailed from New York City – D.C. was not yet the nation’s capital – and spent the night of Aug. 17, 1790, in Newport.
The next morning, seaport city leaders including Moses Seixas and other representatives from religious groups read the president letters of welcome.
Seixas’s statement overflowed with gratitude for Washington for his leadership in the new government and his hope that the United States would assure respect and tolerance for all its citizens, whatever their background and religious beliefs.
President Washington found himself greatly moved by Seixas’s words. Washington responded with his own letter, one in which he assured the Hebrew congregation that “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” He added that ours would be a country which “gives to bigotry no sanction.”
Washington’s famous letter promised not only tolerance, but the full liberty of conscience whatever one’s religious beliefs – paving the way for the First Amendment.
“May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths,” Washington wrote.
As Washington indicated then, our country’s diversity is an asset to cherish. We can remember our national motto, adopted in 1782, E Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many, One.”
Anti-Semitic attacks have more than doubled since 2016, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The group’s leaders say that Saturday’s attack was the deadliest ever against Jews in the history of the United States.
Sadly, our country also has seen a rise in hatred for people with color – with white men and women calling the police and otherwise harassing African-Americans for hanging out by pools in apartment complexes where they live, for gardening, for barbecuing, for going door to door to campaign for public office, and so many other mundane activities.
We hope that all of us in the United States, long a beacon of hope to oppressed people here and the world over, make it a priority to embrace love and compassion. The hatred on display in recent days cannot be who we are.