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Finding reasons to be less afraid

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Parishioners at Sewickley United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania lit candles and placed white roses in vases for the 11 people that were killed and the six that were injured at the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. (Charles Fox/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Last week I went to a friend’s house. Everyone there had lived through the turbulence and violence of the ‘60s and ‘70s. But one woman noted that she feels more scared now than she ever did back then.

We lived through riots in inner cities. Police beating demonstrators. Freedom Riders murdered in the South. Bombs planted at buildings on campuses. Political leaders assassinated.

We marched, thousands and thousands of us, again and again. Families were torn apart, arguing over the Vietnam war and civil rights.

Although we fought over policies, few of us questioned the democratic foundations of our country. We trusted that the courts were above politics and believed a free press was necessary to hold politicians accountable. We supported the system of checks and balances within government that kept any one person, side, or group from gaining too much power. Naïve though we may have been, we truly believed in democracy, in the power of the people.

And we respected the right of every citizen to vote. I cast my first vote in 1972, the year I turned 18, which was also the first year 18-year-olds were allowed to vote. I remember feeling honored to take part in this sacred rite of democracy. I was convinced my vote meant something.

Democracy under attack

But today there are those within — and outside — our country who want to delegitimize and undermine support for the very institutions that make us Americans — the courts, the press, checks and balances, voting. We’re no longer just fighting over policies or opportunities. Today, the very existence of our democracy seems under attack. That’s something we never felt before, even during the worst times in the 1960s.

That’s why many of us who weren’t scared back then are now.

And it’s why the events of last week were so unsettling.

The shootings in a Pittsburgh synagogue shocked us all. They seemed a sad extension of today’s toxic politics. And yet, the shooting also gave us a ray of hope that maybe we’re not as divided, not as lost as we’ve been told.

At an Interfaith vigil after the shooting, Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, announced that the Muslim-American community was raising money to help the injured and families who lost loved ones. In just a few days, the campaign has raised $225,000 and counting.

Healing divisions

This wasn’t the first time these two communities have supported one another. Last year, Muslim donors also raised money to repair headstones damaged by vandals in a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. And Jewish groups raised money to help fix a mosque in Tampa set on fire by an arsonist.

Maybe we’re not as divided as some want us to believe. After all, there is nothing more American — or human — than helping out one another.

At the vigil after the Pittsburgh shootings, Mohamed added, “We just wanna know what you need. You know, if it’s more money, let us know. If it’s people outside your next service protecting you, let us know, we’ll be there … If you need anything at all, if you need food for the families, if you just need somebody to come to the grocery store because you don’t feel safe in this city, we’ll be there and I’m sure everybody in the room would say the same thing. We’re here for the community.”

It’s sad that it seems to take horrific tragedies to remind us of our shared humanity, to remind us that we are all Americans.

It’s easy to feel disillusioned and discouraged by the violence and hate in our country, and by the attempts to subvert our elections and undermine our institutions and democracy itself.

But, in the midst of a horrible week, I saw the grace and compassion of the people of Pittsburgh and was reminded that there is still a lot of good in people and in this country. I think we all need that reminder.

“We just wanna know what you need” was a much-needed comfort for my — and the nation’s — weary, battered soul.

Maybe there is hope for our country after all. Maybe our democracy will survive, if we come together and fight for it – and vote! Maybe there are reasons to not be quite so scared.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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