SCHENECTADY — When Abdul-Rahman Yaki was returning from his home country of Ghana more than two years ago, he feared he was not going to be let back into the country.
Yaki, imam of the Islamic Center of the Capital District, said he even called U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, whom he referred to as “The Boss,” to let him know he was leaving the U.S. and that his family would call his office if he had trouble getting back in.
As he went through airport security, though, he was greeted with some unexpected words.
Yaki told this story to a crowd of hundreds that gathered for a vigil on Monday night at the Congregation Gates of Heaven on Ashmore Avenue. He said it was a moment that gave him hope and peace, and he said it made him realize America was the leader of the world.
The vigil was held to mourn the loss of the 11 Jewish congregants who died during a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Many packed the main room at the vigil while others had to go in spillover rooms.
There was also a police presence out front, with one woman thanking them for being there as she walked into the building.
Several speakers, many who are part of the Schenectady Clergy Against Hate, delivered a similar message as Yaki. While the event was meant to be a time of mourning, it was also meant to be a call for action.
Rabbi Matt Cutler, of the Congregation Gates of Heaven, said while what happened in Pittsburgh on Saturday was an all-too-familiar event for Jews, he said it was not just “a Jewish moment of grief.”
“You see, we as Americans have to bond together,” Cutler said. “Hatred cannot be left unchecked. We stand up to it.”
Several asked the crowd to combat hatred with love, and to stand against the divisiveness that they said exists in the country. Leaders of various faiths spoke and said they stood in solidarity with the Jewish community following Saturday’s mass shooting.
“Make no mistake, this was an attack on us all,” said Paul Uppal, of the Guru Nanak Darbar Sikh Temple of Albany in Niskayuna. “We must all deal with this horror.”
There were some references made to U.S. President Donald Trump during the vigil.
Uppal recalled a tweet sent out by Trump following Saturday’s shooting, where the president said the incident would not have been as bad if there were armed guards inside the synagogue.
He pushed back against that idea.
“Guns have no place in God’s house,” Uppal said. “We should stay firm in our resolve and fight hatred with love, fight divisiveness with philosophy of oneness and common bond.”
Near the end of the vigil Rev. Horace Sanders Jr., pastor of Mt. Olivet Missionary Baptist Church, spoke about the pervasive racism that he said never left the country. He also said there hasn’t been enough done to address it.
Sanders specifically pointed out the three events that occurred over the last week — mail bombs sent across the country; two black people shot and killed in Kentucky; and Saturday’s mass shooting in Pittsburgh — were carried out by white men. He said the problem is people were not calling those acts what they were: terroristic acts. And they weren’t calling those who carry out those acts who they were: terrorists.
Sanders’ comments were met with tepid applause from the crowd. And it was something he noticed.
“But I didn’t come tonight to comfort you in your white fragility, to console you and make you feel good,” Sanders said. “I came to speak to you with the authority God has given me to call all of us to task. There is a whole lot more we need to do to address racism in this county.”
The one way Sanders suggested people stand up to the hatred that exists in the country was to not only show love, but also to vote in the midterm elections on Nov. 6.
“Vote for sanity,” Sanders said. “Vote for civility. Vote for humanity.”
Cutler told the crowd that when they left, they would leave with three different objectives. The first was comfort the community. The second was to choose words wisely and not speak with hate. The third was to show solidarity.
“We stand together to say we care,” Cutler said. “We are better than this. We love each other.”
Following the spate of violence last week, the Schenectady Clergy Against Hate announced it had planned a forum to address the divisiveness of politics in the country by talking about what people have in common.
The event is aimed at addressing questions such as “What draws us together,” “What is bigger than our differences?” and “Why does our togetherness matter.”
The event will also feature music.
“In Schenectady, as in the national as a whole, people have a wide variety of viewpoints and values,” said Rev. Sara Baron, an organizer of the event and pastor of the First United Methodist Church, Schenectady. “It can feel as if we are divided and separated by them, but that narrative has limited truth. Across the seeming divides, we share humanity, a yearning for fairness, love of our children, a desire for a better world and so much more.”
The event well take place at 7 p.m. on Nov. 7 at the First United Methodist Church, Schenectady.