As the orange Texas sunset completed its fade to darkness Thursday evening, 120 people from numerous faith communities held lit candles, wrote messages of solidarity and sang hymns in front of a College Station church to honor the victims of the massacre that claimed the lives of 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue Saturday morning in Pittsburgh.
Clergy and lay leaders from Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Unitarian Universalist faith communities spoke and offered prayers from a lit podium just outside the front door of Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. Several speakers made connections between the massacre and a long string of shootings in houses of worship in the past decade.
Several of the vigil attendees expressed grief over the attack, which was the deadliest on Jewish people in U.S. history, and also articulated solidarity with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, in the Brazos Valley and beyond.
Lucy Harper, 18, voiced a desire to drown out acts of hate.
"I just want to make sure that our Jewish community in Bryan-College Station knows that love is louder than hate," said Harper, who is a high school senior and an active member of Friends U.C.C. "It's a lot easier for events like these mass shootings to make the news and bring everyone down. They're scary and devastating, but acts of love don't get the same publicity. It's important to show that love is so much more prevalent -- it's everywhere and around all the time. I want everyone to know that and feel that."
Susan Miller, an active member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bryan, offered a recitation of the Mourner's Kaddish and then delivered remarks near the end of the vigil in which she expressed gratitude for the turnout.
"We are, as a Jewish people, one with those other groups to whom hatred is directed," Miller said from the podium. "We are one with the LGTBQ community. We are one with our brown brothers and sisters. We are one with immigrant groups from whatever oppressed area they come from.
"We are easily identified as different just as they are easily identified as different. Our goal tonight is, yes, to mourn the people who died, but also to make a vow to condemn the active exercise of hatred."
Miller said after the event that for her, the days following the shooting have reminded her of how she felt on the afternoon President John F. Kennedy was shot, on Nov. 22, 1963. She was in high school then; for her, both events have affected her deeply.
"Incredible sadness is my overriding emotion," she said.
Nine religious leaders spoke over the course of the one-hour event. The Rev. Dan De Leon, Friends U.C.C.'s senior pastor, opened the event by placing the killing in the context of not only "rising anti-Semitism in this country," but also a series of acts of hate-fueled violence dating back to the September 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black girls.
"In all of these events, the trigger was pulled by one gunman, but what is the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced the terrorist?" De Leon asked, his question echoing words Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at the post-bombing eulogy 55 years ago.
"We need to grieve, and we need to lament," De Leon continued. "Let's mourn, and then be blessed with the power to overcome any and all systems of hate that try and try but fail and fail to divide us. There's a power in coming together to lament."
Mike Thomson, who spoke on behalf of the Islamic Community of Bryan-College Station, said "a violation of one place of worship is a violation of all places of worship."
"We also know that to be silent is to let evil prevail," he said. "I pray that almighty God will protect us from evil, will bring us together and empower us to confront hate with love."
The Rev. Amy Klinkovsky, a Presbyterian pastor who works at Texas A&M University as a campus minister, spoke about the interfaith nature of her work, and its power to promote understanding and unity.
"To our Jewish friends, we mourn with you in this time not because we are without hope, but because love draws us together through the healing balm of the Almighty. We will not be strangers in this time of your trial," she said.
Near the end of the vigil, De Leon led those gathered through several verses of the hymn We Shall Not Be Moved. De Leon sang and played guitar while attendees lit one another's candles. The crowd's singing volume steadily increased as some in attendance wiped away tears.
Klinkovsky and the Rev. Trent Williams, the associate pastor at Friends, read aloud the names of each Tree of Life congregant who was killed Saturday. After they spoke each name, Friends U.C.C. member Cady Engler tolled a bell.
Other speakers included the Rev. Lacy Largent, priest at St. Francis Episcopal Church in College Station; the Rev. Travis Meier of Peace Lutheran Church in College Station; the Rev. Matt Stone from St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Bryan; and Jerry Wagnon, who spoke on behalf of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Brazos Valley.
Today at 6:30 p.m., Texas A&M Hillel is hosting "Stronger Than Hate: A Solidarity Shabbat" at its location along George Bush Drive. To RSVP, visit https://tinyurl.com/strongerthanH8.