From Where Is Our Help To Come: A Vigil

“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?” This verse from Psalm 121 formed the text for a powerful reflection by a young rabbi, the first woman to head an historic Iowa City synagogue, as she spoke to some 250 of us gathered for a vigil on the University of Iowa campus. We were there to remember 11 faithful Jews slaughtered at their worship in Pittsburgh and 2 African Americans gunned down at a convenience store in Louisville.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?” she said again. “Jews and African Americans need help in this country today, my brothers and sisters. Where is our help to come from?” She knew perfectly well that the next line in the psalm is “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

But, as a line from the contemporary song she led us in at the close of the service reminds us: if God is to build this world in love, WE must build this world in love. We are the hands and feet of the Holy One in this time and in this place.

The vigil service was hastily put together, as were so many across the nation, but scores and scores of people of all ages, races, faiths and no-faith walked through the light rain to stand with our nation’s Jewish and African American communities in their grief and to pledge our support.

A Muslim woman, well known in Iowa City and head of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, officiated at the entire service after beginning with an appropriate reading from the Qur’an.¬† Community members lit thirteen large votive candles while the names and brief remembrances were read for each of them.

The Mayor of Iowa City spoke, actually quoting the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in a recent sermon in reminding us that the only solution to our problems was Jesus’ Summary of the Law “Love God, Love your Neighbor (and, while you’re at it, Love Yourself).” An African American couple who lead a local community effort known as the Johnson County Interfaith Coalition spoke of their fear that, when their young children grow up, they will still be hated…and killed….because they are Black.

Token notes of solidarity came from our two state senators and lone Democratic congressman, apparently too “busy” to make it to the vigil in person.

And one of the most powerful reflections came from a leading community activist and Presbyterian minister who began by acknowledging his concern as a “tall, white, privileged, Christian male” that he could have anything meaningful to say in such a gathering.

“My tribe has had it all — wealth, power, privilege. But my tribe is dying. And people who look like me are very afraid. Yet death throes can be dangerous. Be careful, my friends, my tribe is dangerous.” It was a moving moment of contrition, confession, and lament. A humbling moment of truth telling.

Yet, there was hope in the service — hope in the haunting and ancient Jewish music and chant; hope in the Muslim readings, hope in the Christian prayers. And, most of all, hope in our commitment to stand together and not to be afraid to act.

A white-bearded rabbi, dressed in the black hat and suit of Eastern European Jews passed out “mitzvah” cards with a half a dozen “good deeds” we could do, indicate them on the card, and send them back to him to forward to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh; good deeds done that these lives might not be lost in vain.

We concluded with a contemporary Jewish song, led by the young, blonde, European rabbi, complete with her guitar as we lit candles and held them high aloft, pledging to build this world in love…that God may build this world in love.

Let us no longer leave the most vulnerable among us, asking the question, “From where is our help to come?”

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