Prayer for Highland Park by Maren Tirabassi

Prayer for Highland Park, Illinois

God, we pray for Highland Park,

asking your tenderness

with those who mourn family and friends,

suddenly and terribly lost,

your care for all those wounded,

and your gentle peace

with those who may hear fireworks

as automatic rifle fire

all the days of their lives.

For this small local palm sunday

turned into a via dolorosa,

a “sorrowful way,”

independence-day become day-of-fear,

celebration of beautiful America

become mourning

of broken America,

we weep, even for ourselves,

but mostly for this town,

these people, who will remember

a terrible rain on their parade.

amen.

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Where They Would Have Been: Home — A Meditation by Rev Gail Doktor (caveat: all mistakes in this reflection are my own)

Last weekend, my daughter Sarah and son-in-law Nirajan honored the covenant of marriage with the blessings and bindings offered by a Hindu priest. It was their third wedding ceremony: two earlier mid-COVID occasions were officiated by Christian ministers. Over the weekend, we joined together two families and nationalities: one with long roots traceable backward across centuries of Judeo-Christian heritage as early settlers and builders of this nation, and the other recently-minted residents who arrived as Nepali immigrants seeking political asylum and then earned US citizenship. We observed hours of prayer, ritual, and symbolism. We reveled with joy, laughter, tears, spicy Nepali food, drinking, singing, and dancing to Nepali music in an (ironically) American-Irish Hall in Malden, MA. Together our joined families embody the possibility of this democracy: what love and peace can accomplish within the frameworks of liberty.

On the July 4th holiday following the family weekend, we wandered Boston, MA with Doktor and Fitzsimons family members visiting from out-of-town. They had been part of the wedding celebration. The Fitzsimons’ missed their own Independence Day traditions, usually focused in Highland Park, IL, to share Sarah and Nirajan’s marital moment with us.

On July 4th, we watched a magician on the steps of Faneuil Hall, untethering himself from impossible bindings. Held our breath for an athlete balanced high on a pogo stick in Quincy Market. Wandered the waterfront, the harbor. Stood on tiptoe to peek at dancers performing for the crowd, their rhetoric creatively challenging racism among onlookers and bystanders, until we laughed at ourselves and became part of their willing audience. Found public restrooms. Chugged water. Ate Irish pub food.

We walked through the haunting remembrance of the Holocaust memorial with the numbers of millions of prisoners imprinted on glass, hot steam rising under our feet, the taut words of survivors incised onto stones. Remember. Remember what can happen when oppressive regimes make others less than human. Remember when violence is given reign. Remember the lives taken. Men, women, and children. Remember.

In the North End, we heard the glistening notes of a glass harmonica invented by Benjamin Franklin echo in Paul Revere’s mall. Cocked our heads to catch thin, breathy song from tall Asian string instruments played in the Boston Common. Smiled at the guitarist who strummed loud, throbbing guitar licks for passing tourists and resident ducks as Swan Boats floated past in the Garden.

At one point, we walked beneath the flight of a circling helicopter. Stared at the flash of blue police lights racing past. Wondered. Violence here, too? Apparently local officials accompanied dignitaries in preparation for a parade from the State House toward the Charles River’s promise of fireworks and pops music.

Lights, sirens, and circling aircraft faded away. We tried to relax.

Someone set off firecrackers beyond the park. The three boys didn’t hear it, but their father, a vigilant veteran of the blue collar Irish neighborhoods of downtown Chicago, who remembers openly-active white supremacists who were aggressively terrorizing their own native sons, startled. Turned. Wondered again.

Was it happening everywhere? The rain of bullets? The domestic terrorism?

Their dad, our brother-in-law, had earned a scholarship, gained an education, and worked his way through college. He long ago moved his family out and away from urban Chicago. Left the violence that surrounded his childhood environs behind, because he could. (And even in this, we know there’s privilege, because so many people who want to escape violence cannot get away.) And he observes that it’s gotten much worse since the time he was growing up; it’s out of control. It’s become so frequent, so daily, that the public is acclimated to hearing about the violence.

Even now, his family says he walks, everyplace except home, with his fists closed. Clenched. Prepared for a fight that he didn’t pick, but he’ll finish. Instead he chose as his hometown, with his wife, the sanctuary of Highland Park, beneath its oaks, among its storied architecture, its friendly streets, its playing fields, its ‘good schools’ and its cultural richness and diversity. Yesterday his fists clenched again.

By the time we were in Boston Garden, cautionary texts were pouring in from Highland Park. Around us in Boston, everything now seemed threatening, though the shadow of the assault was cast from hundreds of miles away in the midwest. Yet it seemed to reach across centuries, rooted in the revolutionary clashes that marked the East Coast in the 18th century, groaning from older times into our young new century, lamenting the ongoing struggles of our burdened democracy.

In the Boston Garden, beneath the droop of willow, the creak of oak, the whisper of maple, we re-created a Fitzsimons childhood photo of small boys, nephews and cousins, clamoring over bronze ducklings. Now tall young men, they again draped themselves with grins beneath Cubs and Wildcats baseball caps, around those same bronze birds made famous by Robert McCloskey. Their mom stepped further back to catch the whole image.

Amidst all of these Independence Day moments, cell phones interrupted us. Texts and alerts continued to push their way into the hot, want-some-ice-cream, need-a-cold-water tour of Boston. This Fitzsimons clan connected to ours should have been on the streets of Highland Park, their youngest in the band, keeping time, drumming the rhythm of liberty. Mom and dad would have been on the sidelines, their seats staked out, ready to watch the unfolding festivities, starting with the children’s parade, followed by marching sports teams, then the high school band. Mom’s camera phone would be poised to catch her son’s tall, angular shape among the rearguard of the band, keeping the beat. Their elder boys would have captured video, and remembered their own time marching in that familiar route. 

Until the shots rang out. And suddenly the band surged forward, away from the violence. Our nephews, brother-in-law and sister would have been caught among them. Parade participants and bystanders, just behind and around them, falling.

Of those who fell, we know now, several never rose again. Six perished. Other were taken to the hospital and treated for ‘war-time’ injuries: the youngest was eight and the eldest eighty-six.

As civilians fled, first responders rushed toward the danger.

Above them, a misguided 20-something, former Scout, discarded a gun designed for warfare. It had been aimed at innocents. He, too, fled. Was apprehended, but only after he had taken a human toll in payment. We await, even now, some cause. Some motive. As if any mental health diagnosis or angry rationale could justify or make meaning of the lives he took.

Our nephew ought to have been in that parade. His parents and brothers ranged along the curb, keeping watch. Except they were in Boston with us when it happened.

Instead our family, away from home, stood in the landscape of revolution, the revelry of freedom, receiving heart-breaking updates about someone who, at a minimum, violated the constitutional right to bear arms for purposes of defense. The Fitzsimons’ paused to answer frantic check-ins. Sent out their own queries to friends and neighbors, classmates and colleagues, clients and kin, to confirm they were among the living.

They closed their eyes against how close, how near, they’d come to tragedy. We all know, now, that they … that all of us … are only one connection removed frm irreparable loss. Realize they’ll know people among those hurt and killed.

The Highland Park home to which they return today is not the one they left.fTheir chosen hometown started its July 4th holiday with a joyful renewal of public gatherings after two and more years shut down by COVID and national division, and ended those revelries beneath the onslought of an assault weapon. Highland Park is a common community, an everyday neighborhood, now locked down by fear and anger, held hostage by grief and shock. It is trite to say that they are healing, mourning, and praying. It is early to claim they are organizing, investigating, and urging.

The Fitzsimons’ hometown of Highland Park will be added to a list of communities scarred by such unnecessary, unwarranted violence. It will become one more name in a litany of lament and protest.

This is not just the news about someplace else. Someone else. This is personal. As it always should have been.

Yesterday marked our nephews, cousins, brothers, and sisters. It marked us. All over again. Near kin saved by the fateful invitation to attend their cousin’s wedding. Or they would have have been among those running, diving, dodging the violence that erupted on their beloved streets.

All of us, it seems, are one connection away from such hurts and losses. This isn’t someone else’s issue. It is ours as a nation. As families. As individuals.

Yes, on days like July 4th, we honor those matriarchs and patriarchs who claimed our rights and fought for them. Precisely because of those we honor, we do not validate the violence that has been justified in liberty’s name by a criminal, a terrorist, in Highland Park. Or Uvalde. Or Sandy Hook. Or Parkland. Or Columbine. Or Buffalo. Or Charleston. Of any of more than 300 neighborhoods where a mass shooting of more than four people occurred this year. Or thousands of streets where a single, unarmed person was killed with a gun for any reason of any kind.

As we were bid yesterday in the military and Holocaust memorials, we remember. As we were called to do yesterday by the revolutionary musicians playing the anthem of war, by the gravestones of soldiers, preachers, merchants, farmers, slaves, and freed people, by the reciting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, by the unfurled sails of the naval ship The Constituion, by the pops’ patriotic songs, and the fireworks burning bright in the sky, we remember. We remember.

Yes, our democracy is burdened. It sometimes feels broken. It bends beneath the weight of its people’s needs and differences. Yet the wealth and monuments of our freedom are built upon the bones of diversity, upon the backs of those who were not free when it was raised, and only recognized as human in later eras. Our nation’s independence was gained at the expense of people whose human rights have more recently been confirmed and withdrawn, confirmed and compromised, again and again, and yet have advanced, overall, from the times of our founding til now.

On days like this year’s Independence Day, when a terrorist killed and harmed innocents with a weapon of war in Highland Park, we are reminded that democracy is a process. Why are we surprised that violence happened in a town that everyone thought was safe? We assumed it was someone else’s issue, restricted to certain zipcodes? We thought such violence only occurred in cities? Or specific urban neighborhoods defined by color and poverty? That some people deserve or create violence, while others don’t? That if we are good enough, faithful enough, deserving enough, violence won’t touch us?

Sometimes we operate as if we believe that democracy, whose birth we celebrated yesterday, exists as an absolute, unchallenged state of being. Yet democracy is ever-unfolding, changing, evolving. It starts with knowing our history, our past. Then imagining what must come next.

Highland Park has just been added to the bloody side of our national story. Peaceful democracy doesn’t promise the absence of conflict or disagreement. Instead, it imagines that the ways we contend with each other are civil. Yet our nation’s founders also believed we must continue to struggle together, even now, to redefine freedom over and over. To expand its range and possibility to encompass more people.

Some among us continue to struggle for the right to vote. Or to be acknowledged as fully human, with the right to regulate and rule our own bodies. Or to be recognized, regardless of differences in sexuality or gender, as worthy of the same rights as those who first framed the constitution. Our constitution once excluded, in its implementation if not in its intention, the full human rights of women, children, people of color, indigenous peoples, people who didn’t own property, and many others.

As we were bid so long ago, and only yesterday, we remember. We remember when we did not belong. We remember that, yes, we do belong.

Remembering, we do more than march. We vote. We challenge policy. We write the future story of change that must continue, transformation that must lead to sustainable ‘common defense, general welfare and domestic tranquility’ for all people in this country, without fear that a weapon of war, or the greater weapons of legal, social, and political systems, will be turned upon us. We add Highland Park to the argument.

This isn’t someone else’s issue. It is ours. It’s our freedom. Our liberty.

Like the covenant made between families last weekend, the longer history of our nation is comprised of emerging differences that find common cause, common love, and common striving together. Our nation is comprised of many peoples: some who lived here before the first foreigners landed on these shores, some whose families came here by choice, some whose ancestors were forced to this land. Yet this land, this nation, this democracy has claimed all of us now.

Our liberties, at their best, belong to all of us. Yet our laws and liberties do not protect all of us, or remain available to all of us. Not equally. Not yet.

So we remember. We say the litany of hometown names, and add a new one: Highland Park. The Fitzsimons’ hometown. Our family’s hometown.

We ask why? We wonder what can change, so this doesn’t happen again? And we act.

We mark the holiday. Celebrate the beginning of freedom. Then we remember, that the work of freedom isn’t finished. As a nation, we are a work in progress. We are the children and grand-children and great-grandchildren of a civil dream that is growing to a greater maturity. We are the offspring of a covenant that  reveals the fullness of what American could be, yet has not become. 

We remember. Our lives are holy. And all love, at its best, is holy. Thus our lives, in whatever ways we may live and put them to the service of others and creation, may be and become expressions of love and forms of prayer.

We remember. We add Highland Park to the prayers, the protests, the policy-making. We breathe. We try once more to make a difference. And we return our chosen homes, if we are privileged to have homes, to dream. To dream hopefully and courageously. To love. To love tenderly and boldly. To pray. To pray differently and faithfully. And to strive. To strive creatively and intentionally for change. To reach. To reach in whatever ways we each can for equitable, sustainable, life-affirming transformation to continue.

Late yesterday, after hours walking through the Freedom Trail route of Boston, we hopped the subway out of the city, and found a Mexican food restaurant open despite the holiday. Munched tortilla chips and salsa verde, then ordered a variety of cuisine. Listened to news updates. Sighed. Changed the conversation to more hopeful topics. Comforted ourselves with scoops of ice cream from the Nepali-owned Jay’s Pizza & Ice Cream shop down the street, where we could also order Nepali momoes if were still hungry. We weren’t. So we said good-bye to each other. Wondered what it would be like for the Fitzsimons to return home today, knowing that home has changed so much.

Pray for Highland Park. Pray for our nation. Pray for this world. May our freedom to pray, and to choose love, be used to strive for this: Peace. Salaam. Shalom.

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