By Grant Oliphant, CEO
The Conrad Prebys Foundation
On the evening of October 27, 2018, I gathered alongside thousands of other mourners in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. That morning a gunman had walked into the synagogue known as Tree of Life and massacred eleven worshippers, ripping apart our community’s sense of safety and oneness. This was literally Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, the place where Fred lived when he taught generations of Americans about the value and essence of human kindness.
We had been called together by a group of teenagers who wanted to do something positive and real in the wake of the shootings. People in the crowd lit candles handed out by the Presbyterian church at the corner. We spoke to each other in hushed tones, wept and hugged, expressed rage and grief, and listened as the students offered Jewish prayers and blessings. Afterwards, we dispersed slowly, reluctant to let go of each other in this moment when community had taken on a whole new meaning.
It is becoming impossible to know what to do or say in the wake of yet another shooting—now the slaughter of young children and their teachers in Uvalde, so quickly on the heels of the tragedies in Laguna Woods and Buffalo. The mind struggles to comprehend such evil. It also struggles to understand the seemingly endless inaction of adults. We say we love our children, but love is about deeds, not words. If we thought of these victims as our own children, as our own loved ones (and what we all secretly know is that next time, they might be), what wouldn’t we do, what wouldn’t we try, to spare them?
I have nothing useful to add to that conversation beyond acknowledging that we are also citizens, and that the work of citizens often feels futile until, finally, one day, it doesn’t. Instead, I just want to say something to the people whose work we are privileged to support, and to everyone who wakes up every morning intent on working to build a better, more caring, more understanding, and more inclusive place for all of us. From our conversations, I know that many of you feel, as I do, crushed by this moment, unable to fathom a way forward.
But here’s what I hope you will know and hold onto: In so many ways, you are the way forward. The work you do is the way forward.
After the massacre at Tree of Life, something deeply powerful happened. The head of Pittsburgh’s Islamic Center began raising money and awareness for the victims’ families. Faith leaders of all types stepped in with offers of help. Leaders in the Black community, who had endured so much violence themselves, reached out to stand by their Jewish brothers and sisters. Nonprofits offered food, art, childcare, counseling. The Center for Loving Kindness, a Jewish organization with a Buddhist-sounding name whose mission was rooted in faith but about building beloved community across the spectrum of our society, launched a program of dialogue and learning connected with opportunities for action.
The community was stitched back together, made stronger along the seams, by countless acts of courage and kindness, some of which were about the massacre, some of which appeared to be completely unrelated. All of them mattered.
No one of us holds a magical cure to fix what’s broken in our society that allows these killings to happen and to continue. But collectively we do hold the secret to one day ending them, which is, day by day, loving act by fiercely loving act, in a mosaic built from the infinite pieces of our shattered hearts, to build the sort of community in which such violence is unthinkable and intolerable.
You do that. In just two months in my new hometown, I have already met and been humbled by so many of you—working to help children learn and grow, to offer housing and dignity to those deprived of both, to build awareness across cultures, to help us see the suffering and beauty of others, to tackle oppression, to create real opportunities for all of us to belong and contribute, to cure disease and promote healing, to tell stories of hope and possibility, to bring us into community.
From my friends in Jewish philanthropy, I learned decades ago the concept of Tikkun Olam, the idea that we have an obligation, each of us in our own small way, to repair the world. Behind that concept lies a beautiful story (which I first heard from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast) of how God’s light, which created the world, was broken and scattered across time and space, and that our task—no one’s alone but ours nonetheless—is to collect the light and piece it back together.
In times of darkness, it is hard to imagine the light. But it is also essential to remember that we are the light, and that the work continues.