Pittsburgh’s faith leaders offered ancestral prayers, laid a wreath and engaged in collective song during last week’s vigil for Sri Lanka. Held at the Heinz Memorial Chapel in Oakland, the event enabled nearly 200 attendees to hear about Sri Lankan life and reflect on the 253 people killed during the April 21 bombings in the island republic.
As beautiful as the country is, it is the people who make it truly special, explained Hafeez Dheen, of the Muslim Association of Greater Pittsburgh. Dheen recalled his regular childhood visits and “deep ancestral roots” to the land before noting the recent attacks do not represent “the Sri Lanka I know.”
With a population of 21 million, nearly 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists. Remaining residents are split between Hindus, Muslims and Christians, according to Sri Lanka’s 2012 Census of Population and Housing.
Despite its diversity, “Sri Lanka has a long history of discrimination,” said Ernest Rajakone, deputy manager, City of Pittsburgh Community Affairs. This matters to Pittsburgh, he added, because “we have a moral obligation to humanity to combat hate.”
Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive minister of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, said, “These moments are times when people of disparate beliefs can come together in solemnity in silence and contemplation and with a deep commitment to not only hoping for a better world but shaping a better world.”
That need to remain hopeful is critical, explained Mayor Bill Peduto following the event.
“There’s a slow erosion that I believe has occurred over the past several years that has allowed hate speech to become more accepted and an increase in hate crime to become more prevalent,” Peduto said. “And we have to find a way to reverse it like a tide rolling back out. I don’t know what that is, but we just have to have those conversations and we have to constantly say that this is not right. There is good in the world. There are those that view an attack against any faith as an attack against all faith. There are far more people that believe in compassion and love than those that post on Facebook or Twitter words of hate.”
Familiar faces, including Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, were present at the vigil.
While addressing attendees, Symons invoked Rabban Gamliel’s Mishnaic teaching that “the more charity, the more peace,” and encouraged people to place money in collection baskets. All donations were going to be sent to aid those in Sri Lanka, explained Ozzy Samad, president of Brother’s Brother Foundation.
The ability to render assistance through financial support or physical demonstration transcends religion, explained Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light Congregation — one of three congregations targeted in the Oct. 27, 2018 attack at the Tree of Life building.
“I’m not here as a Jew. I’m here as a person of religion, suffering another tragedy in another place where people have died simply because of the way they believe in God,” said Cohen.
Attendees of the April 24 vigil can learn from Sri Lanka, its people and the events that transpired, explained Bhante Pemaratana, a Sri Lankan-born monk who traveled to the United States in 2008 to serve at the Pittsburgh Buddhist Center.
Said Pemaratana, “Dark moments allow for good to come to the surface.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.