WEST ORANGE, NJ — One week ago on June 16, the West Orange community gathered at the South Mountain Recreation Complex to mourn the victims of the Orlando, Fla., massacre. Attendees at the event, which drew a crowd of more than 100, grieved for the lives lost, celebrated the township’s diversity and called for change to prevent another such mass shooting.
“We come together to mourn the lives so senselessly taken in Orlando,” Jane Gaertner, chairwoman of the West Orange Human Relations Commission, which planned the vigil with the help of former HRC commissioner Cynthia Cumming, told those assembled. “We will stand together as a community united against hatred and bigotry.”
Mayor Robert Parisi — who was joined by Assemblyman John McKeon, Deputy Mayor Rodolfo Rodriguez, Council President Victor Cirilo, and Township Council members Joe Krakoviak, Sue McCartney and Michelle Casalino — spoke as both the mayor of West Orange and as a father whose son is about to graduate from high school.
“Our children, their friends and their classmates are from ethnic backgrounds all over the globe. Our children, their friends and their classmates grow up in homes with two moms or two dads. Our children, their friends and their classmates have mixed-race relationships. Our children, their friends and their classmates have openly gay relationships. And this is all normal to our children,” Parisi said.
Nevertheless, he said there is still much to do and that this work must go beyond the government making new laws.
“Laws cannot change the hate that hides in the heart of man,” Parisi said. Still, Parisi reminded the township that there is hope — even after such a tragedy as occurred in Orlando, in which a gunman killed 49 innocent people and injured more than 50 in a gay nightclub.
HRC Commissioner Jim Carter echoed Parisi’s sentiments, reminding everyone to turn to the positive emotions rather than the negative.
“The opposite of love is not hate, but fear,” Carter said, adding that fear drives all hatred, such as racism, anti-Semitism, anti-LGBTQ and anti-Islam sentiment, misogyny and more. “We cannot let fear win.”
Carter then read a poem he had written, titled “Don’t Be Afraid,” which addressed hatred, intolerance and xenophobia.
HRC member Youssef Wadih addressed the crowd as both a 15-year resident of West Orange and as an American Muslim.
“There is never any acceptable justification for such crimes — crimes against God, crimes against humanity,” Wadih said, having a hard time keeping back his tears. He reminded that “terrorism has no religion” and quoted the Koran, which says, “Whoever kills an innocent person, it is like he has killed all humanity.”
“Both the LGBT and Muslims have experienced hate, intolerance and bigotry,” Wadih said, adding that it is especially horrifying that such an attack would occur during Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month. “It is time for all of us to stand together as members of the same race — the human race. We must move past tolerance to acceptance and love.”
Bill Cofone, a member of the West Orange Arts Council, also addressed the crowd from the dual perspective of a township leader and the father of a lesbian daughter. He called for stronger gun control over military-grade weaponry.
“There are 8 million of these guns in our country,” Cofone said. “Ban weapons made for war. There is no excuse for having them for civilian purposes.”
He added that this time change truly must happen and can’t just be discussed. “Everyone thought this would happen after Sandy Hook; it never happened,” he said, referring to the 2012 mass shooting in which a man, who later turned the gun on himself, killed 27 people, including 20 young children.
Jason Munoz, a member of West Orange High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance, thanked all present for making West Orange a safe place where he feels truly accepted.
Several clergy members also spoke at the event, including Pastor Doug Adams of J.O.Y. Church of God, who assured the community that God is grieved over the deaths in Orlando.
“God is not grieved because of political affiliations or religious practices,” Adams said. “God is grieved because he didn’t create them to die in a bloody massacre and his heart is broken over this. What occurred is a loss for all of humanity.
“Where do we go from here? This is a question we need to answer,” Adams continued, adding that evil is real and hurts everyone indiscriminately. “How many more people have to be gunned down simply for the lives they are pursuing? How many more children have to be gunned down in schools?”
Rev. Miguel Hernandez of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in West Orange, who gave his speech in both English and Spanish, quoted Marvin Gaye, saying “Only love can conquer hate.”
“This kind of violence makes us sad and angry,” Hernandez said. “This was a horrible case of violence. We mourn the lives that were taken from us. These were lives that were about to flourish.”
Rabbi David Greenstein from Shomrei Emunah in Montclair managed to express his condolences while keeping the mood light by sharing two Jewish blessings. The first was one said when encountering a truly beautiful person to thank God for making such a beautiful world. The second was one thanking God for allowing the body to function properly.
“Who here has gone to the bathroom today?” Greenstein asked, getting many awkward chuckles and raised hands from those gathered. “Going to the bathroom in this country has become a big issue lately. If you are healthy enough to go to the bathroom, then you have enjoyed a blessing from God.”
More somberly, Rev. Becca Migliore of United Presbyterian Church in West Orange expressed her utter shock and sadness at the events in Orlando.
“What happened this weekend is unspeakable and yet we must speak; what happened this weekend left us asking ‘what can we do?’ and yet we must do something; what happened this weekend was horrific and yet we know is has happened before,” Migliore said. “We will need to speak even when it is hard, we will need to act even when it is scary, and we will need to hold on to our vision of the world at its best.”
Some in the crowd were moved to tears as Markus Grae-Hauck, music director of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Montclair, led those assembled in song, singing three songs throughout the night: “There Is More Love Somewhere,” “We Are a Gentle, Angry People” and a song that has long been associated with the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”
The crowd was also left in reverent silence as Carter read the names of the 49 victims of the lethal shooting. As he read the names, crowd members held up their illuminated cell phones, signs declaring “We are Orlando” or even their hands to show solidarity and love.
Gaertner ended the event with the words: “If you accept injustice, you become injustice.”
Photos by Yael Katzwer