This Can Happen Here

chagall dreams

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

– Naomi Shihab Nye, “Gate A-4

Someone vandalizes a church and a Jewish community center in Northern Virginia. They paint swastikas on buildings and dark words over a sign supporting Muslims. This happens on the first night of Passover, at the start of the Christian holy week. The story is here.

Then the police track down a suspect. Dylan Mahone is a 20-year-old man who has found his way into white supremacist and neo-Nazi circles. A student at the community college. A neighbor who lives just blocks from the house my former partner shares with his two kids. A young man whose Facebook page drips with racism and hate and noxious fantasies of violence.

White. Christian. Educated. Male.

One of ours. One of us.

Tonight, people come from all over the region to this little stretch of Fairfax County. They gather here for an interfaith vigil at the church whose walls are now scrubbed clean. The sanctuary seems spacious at first. People shuffle in. Scoot over. Squeeze together. The space shrinks and the crowd grows. People keep coming. They stand in the back. They perch on the steps. Overflow rooms open up in other parts of the church. Three members of the press jam up against a wall near the front, cameras clicking and whirring.

The minister welcomes us. A Native American musician plays a Kiowan song about starting again each day. The director of the Jewish Community Center says a few words. A poet reads “Gate A-4” by Naomi Shihab Nye.

A Methodist, a Sikh, a Virginia state senator. A Muslim, a Unitarian, a Fairfax County board supervisor. Two professors. Two poets. A member of the Baha’i community.

And all of us.

The vandalism has slapped us awake. Again. As if we don’t know what already lives here, as if we don’t understand how monumental the work before us. This vigil is a place to let the confusion and pain be what it is. We do not have to fold it into that tidy package of detachment — the one we tuck away under our face-front, carry-on lives — to mask our sense of defeat. Here, the outrage can bubble up.

We hear our faith and civic leaders talk about the importance of diversity and understanding. Several describe a commitment to helping young people navigate a troubling world. A few seethe, savoring a little taste of vengeance. One asks, “I’ve run into a number of you at other vigils. It’s nice to see my friends, but can we be done with events like this? Can we please not need to do this anymore?”

One asks for light. One for silence.

In all of this, the word used more than any other?

Love.

Theme and mantra both, it threads its way through every verse and passage and stump speech. The call extends beyond the people in attendance, past the packed rooms of this church. This chorus of love carries out into the night of this community and tries to make itself heard.

To heal, yes. Also, love to remind us of our connections to each other and to a greater purpose.

Love as fuel to march and vote, to organize and put our bodies out on the front lines for justice and equality and radical kindness.

Love as courage.

Love to hold us close to what we most fear and to live alongside what we wish to reject.

Love even for Dylan, the young man who did this terrible thing.

He is, after all, one of us.

We do not roar down the street with our pitchforks.

Instead we walk outside, pouring from all the doors, and encircle the church. We hold candles that bind the building in a warm ribbon of light. The first notes of songs lift over us and collect scattered voices, drifting along the crowd. “This Little Light of Mine,” “If I Had a Hammer.” They echo and rise then fall off into giggles and chatter.

This can still happen anywhere.

This, our community in love gathered under the mercifully still spring night.

Not everything is lost.


Image: Elena Kotliarker, “The Chagall Dreams”

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4 thoughts on “This Can Happen Here”

  1. among trees
    people you’ve never seen
    mingle warmth from hand to hand
    and melt
    until they are beams of light woven into a rope
    that tugs you in

    where a man whose eyes sparkle into yours
    lifts his young girl
    this is my daughter
    she puts her face close to yours
    you say hello beauty
    she smiles hello love

    the light of day
    the splash of water on your face
    daffodils burning in their blue and white vase
    the calendar open to two jays on a branch
    it’s Spring
    the first day

    “Some nights you’re blessed” by Rosie King

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