Community Strong

IN THE WAKE OF NEW ZEALAND MOSQUE SHOOTINGS, LEXINGTON’S MUSLIMS STEP FORWARD, AND ARE EMBRACED WITH LOVE.

By Jeri Zeder

 

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Since the morning of April 19, 1775, when some 850 British troops confronted eighty-one militiamen-farmers and left eight dead and eleven wounded, the Lexington Common—the Battle Green—has been endowed with significance. A symbol of American freedom, it has drawn visits from dignitaries and presidents, and has elevated the people’s voices, as when hundreds of veterans and citizens were arrested there in a peaceful mass protest of the Vietnam War on Memorial Day of 1971.

On March 24, 2019, the Battle Green was again an inspiration and a witness to history when Adhan, the Muslim call to evening prayer, was chanted there for the very first time.

It began with heartbreak. On March 15, 2019, at around Friday prayer time, the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, were attacked by a man in his late 20s wielding automatic weapons. He cited as his influences white supremacist ideology and President Trump. The shootings would ultimately take the lives of at least fifty worshippers and leave behind unquantifiable trauma.
Here in Lexington, the response was swift. Within a week, nearly a dozen separate community organizations stepped forward, and on Lexington’s most evocative spot, offered a public vigil to envelope their Muslim neighbors with love. The vigil, “Remembering #Christchurch: Lexington Stands With Our Muslim Neighbors,” would ultimately bring together some 600 families and individuals, showing what is possible when a town is blessed with a rainbow of dynamic community groups that advocate not only for their own members, but for the greater good of all.

Ravish Kumar, president of Indian Americans of Lexington (IAL), explained why his group participated. “IAL stands for humanity,” he said. The vigil, he said, “makes a clear statement that this community has a strong sense of diversity and will not be shaken by such events.”

Sara Cuthbertson, chair of the PTA/PTO Presidents Council, which seeks to foster a welcoming school community for all families, said, “We are lucky to have so many community resources in Lexington, and at times when groups in our community are hurting, it’s important that we use all resources available to us to support our neighbors.”

Valerie Overton, co-chair of LexPride, said, “Working toward inclusion and equality for all peoples is one of our core values. In addition, LGBT+ identities cross all faiths, races, ethnicities, abilities, ages, and other traits. So, in co-sponsoring the vigil, we were standing with our family and friends.”


“All of us need to understand people of all religions and backgrounds, and at the end of the day, they are people, right? We all have the same needs, to be part of everything, to be happy. We are just like you. We are you.”
Tahir Chaudhry, a representative from the Muslim community to LICA


Peter Lee, a past president and current executive committee member of the Chinese American Association of Lexington (CAAL), said, “In our thirty-six-year history, CAAL has always been an organization promoting diversity, education, awareness, and inclusion. We’ve always tried to play a prominent role in town, bridging the gap between Lexington and a growing Chinese community. As such, we were more than happy to lend our support to the community vigil and, of course, the larger cause.” (See sidebar for the complete list of organizations and businesses that came together to support the vigil.)
At the center of all the planning were two groups with broad reach—the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association (LICA) and Lexington Says #Enough.

LICA has promoted interfaith solidarity in Lexington since the 1970’s. Its most recent act was to mobilize the town’s faith communities in providing significant financial support to Lexington’s Jewish synagogues, which unexpectedly needed to increase their security budgets following the white-supremacist Tree of Life synagogue shootings in Pittsburg, in October 2018.

Lexington Says #Enough is a grassroots gun violence-prevention organization founded by students in the aftermath of the February 14, 2018, Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Lexington Says #Enough has a close relationship with First Parish Church—the group is one of the church’s six community partners—so it was easy for Ragini Pathak and her son Devesh, co-leaders of Lexington Says #Enough, and LICA’s Rev. Anne Mason, the minister of First Parish, to start talking about a joint response to the New Zealand shootings. Things grew from there, as additional members of LICA, including leaders from Lexington’s Muslim community, and Lexington Says #Enough began meeting together.

This was a departure for LICA. “I think this was the first time that LICA had ever planned a vigil with other groups,” Mason says. Following the violent August 12, 2017, neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, LICA held a vigil at Hancock Church on August 20, 2017. As it happened, on that same day, there was a secular gathering organized by others at Emery Park in Lexington Center. “We noticed that some people chose one event or the other,” says Jessie Steigerwald, a member of Lexington Says #Enough. “This was definitely on my mind as we sat together with LICA leaders: wouldn’t it be nice for the community if we all were in one spot, sharing the same sense and showing even more support.”

The central organizers hoped to create a space for sharing grief, condemning violence, and cultivating understanding. “I think that people are frustrated with all the violence we see around us again and again, and with the fact that our country is exporting that violence in the mind of the person who did that attack in New Zealand. There is nothing worse than that,” said Tahir Chaudhry, a representative from the Muslim community to LICA. “All of us need to understand people of all religions and backgrounds, and at the end of the day, they are people, right? We all have the same needs, to be part of everything, to be happy. We are just like you. We are you.”


Clockwise from top: Devesh Pathak and Emily Weinberg of Lexington Says #Enough, Reverend Anne Mason from First Parish, Reverend Andrew Golthor from Church of Our Redeemer, Amber Iqbal and LHS Student Ariya Adeena Syed and Lexington Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Julie Hackett


A decision was made to seek a permit from the Board of Selectmen to hold a community vigil on the Battle Green. While the Battle Green is listed with the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark, it is the Selectmen of Lexington who regulate its use.

On Friday morning, March 22, 2019, the Board convened a special meeting to consider the permit request. As the hearing was scheduled unexpectedly and on short notice, two Selectmen were out of town. The proponents of the request—Ragini Pathak, Steigerwald, and Amber Iqbal, a leader from the Muslim community—told the Board that about 300 people were expected to attend. Also speaking in support of the vigil were LICA representatives Tahir Chaudhry and Anne Mason, and LexPride’s Valerie Overton. Following their presentation, Selectman Chair Suzie Barry polled her colleagues.

“The Battle Green represents a location in town where the community as a whole can come and share their mourning and their concerns. So, I am supportive of this,” said Selectman Joe Pato.
Selectman Doug Lucente concurred. “This is an important response to a very tragic event, and it is a good opportunity for the town to come together and have everyone feel equal. We are all Lexington citizens, and that is the most important thing, so I am supporting this,” he said.

“Lexington has taken a strong stand since 2017, when we signed our inclusivity proclamation, that we truly welcome all, and I think it is important that we live that,” said Barry. She then called for a vote. All three Selectmen present voted to issue the permit, and the vigil went forward.

Turnout was double of what was expected. The Boston Globe captured the scene that Sunday: “As the sun went down behind First Parish Church…, people of all faiths gathered on the historic Battle Green to remember the 50 people slain in the recent shooting massacre at two mosques in New Zealand. Women wore hijabs, the traditional Muslim head covering, and some Jewish men wore a yarmulke. Others held rosary beads, a symbol of Catholic worship. Nearby, prayer rugs for each person killed in the mass shooting at the mosques were placed on grass still brown from winter.”

The vigil’s distinguishing moment was the gathering of members of the Muslim community to worship in the presence of their fellow townspeople. When Imam Faisal Khan of the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland ascended the podium and approached the mic, he did not hold back. In a voice warm and sonorous, he chanted the traditional Adhan, and the Muslim call to evening prayer rang across the Lexington Battle Green. It felt like peace and sorrow and affirmation, all at once. Dozens of Muslim men, women, and children took off their shoes and knelt on a tarp for their evening prayers, openly inviting their neighbors as witnesses.

Amber Iqbal, a teacher of Koran and Islamic Studies, explained. “We Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day, and whenever it is time for prayer, we try to find a little corner in the parking lot or we try to find a changing room to quickly go and pray inside there, but we haven’t really been bold enough to pray openly in public spaces because we are always shy about how people are going to perceive it,” she said. The New Zealand shooter, Iqbal said, “tried to destroy a community that was just trying to find peace and love and just trying to worship God. What was the hatred about?” Iqbal continued, “We wanted to show the entire community in Lexington and surrounding cities and towns what Muslims actually do when we go to the mosque, what the shooter was scared about.”

“The message I took away from the vigil is that we all live here as one people, and have an equal right to the blessings of life in our community,” said Selectman Mark Sandeen.
“The vigil was a reflection of who we are,” said Selectman Jill Hai. “As a community, we honor each other, our differences and commonalities.”

Following the vigil, people crossed the Green to First Parish Church just to meet and talk. They were greeted at the door by members of Lexington’s Muslim community (there is no mosque in Lexington) and the inviting aromas of chai tea and samosas.

Lexington High School student Devesh Pathak, a co-founder and co-leader of Lexington Says #Enough, attended both the vigil and the church reception. “We came out stronger after this event,” he said. Asked why that is important, he paused thoughtfully. “A stronger community,” he said finally, “is one that is more receptive to the needs of others in it. It is better to have more people who want to support one another in a moment of need.”

 


The following groups made possible Lexington’s community response to the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Organizers:
Lexington Says #ENOUGH
Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association (LICA)
First Parish Church

Co-Sponsors:
Indian Americans of Lexington (IAL)
Association of Black Citizens of Lexington (ABCL)
Chinese American Association of Lexington (CAAL)
The Lexington Academy and MBMM
Korean American Organization of Lexington
Arlington Human Rights Commission

LexPride
Lexington’s PTA/PTO President Council (PPC)
In-kind Donors
Holi Indian Restaurant and Bar
Royal India Bistro
Virsa de Punjab
Neillios Gourmet Kitchen and Deli
Wilson Farm

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