Community Unites at Rockaway Vigil

At times when it feels as though fear and hatred are becoming commonplace in society, people must remember to look to their friends and neighbors for solace. On Tuesday, August 22nd, Rockaway residents had a chance to join together as a community to reflect on the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, VA and other tragedies that impacted the community, nation, and world such as the terrorist attack in Barcelona, Spain. Rockaway Women for Progress (RWP),a local advocacy group that promotes peace and supports equal rights, hosted the candlelight vigil to create a space for the Rockaway community to heal together in the wake of tragedy as well as highlight its diversity and inclusivity. During the event, community members memorialized those who died or were injured in the Charlottesville rally as well as denounced racism, anti-Semitism, and hatred in their own community.

The event was held at the Beach 94th Street Plaza and was well attended. It featured speeches from community members Fern Zagor and Wendell (Buster) Wooten. The speakers shared their personal stories with the community and they expressed their hope for their communities to take a united stand against racism and anti-Semitism. As their stories rang out over the boardwalk, passersby stopped to listen and take part in the fellowshipping.

RWP member and vigil organizer Jean Belford thanked the attendees and praised their attendance as an act of resilience. She said, “We may not know one another as well as we should, and that’s an issue for another day, but, friends, you are here tonight. Obviously, our hearts have a lot in common. If you are wondering what you can do in these times where peace seems fleeting or non-existent, at home or abroad, you are already doing it. You are here clearly because you care about your community, your neighbors, Rockaway and beyond.”

Wendell “Buster” Wooten, an assistant football coach at Beach Channel High School, connected the current events with what his family went through during the Civil Rights era. “It’s disturbing to me that in this time and day, we still have these things to worry about,” he said, “During the 60s my family was very involved in the Civil Rights movement. We were always told that you always treat everyone equal. It’s a simplistic thing, but it really does make a difference. So I just hope that as a country we can get together and find some type of common ground.”

His wish for finding common ground is admirable and couldn’t be more timely. After the presidential election in November 2016, 77% of Americans viewed the country as “divided” according to a poll conducted by Gallup. Things have only continued to deteriorate due to the divisive rhetoric coming from the White House. Events like RWP’s vigil work to bridge the divide between community members on the ground level, but many continue to ask if it’s enough. Jean Belford’s comments acknowledged that a big part of change is showing up, but if Rockaway residents truly want to make their community better, attendance at events needs to be paired with direct action.

As this nation continues to go through growing pains, citizens across the country must stand up for what they believe in. In the wake of events like Charlottesville, it’s easy to denounce hate groups, but to truly create a safe and fair country, people must be willing to stand up against hatred and bigotry in instances where it’s not so obvious. Community members must be willing to look to their politicians, neighbors, and even family members and hold them accountable. Once that happens, the true healing of this nation can begin.