September 8, 2005

Ithacans Hold Candlelight Vigil for Katrina Victims

Print More

Concerned Ithaca citizens from various religious and activist affiliations framed a circular gathering of prayer, meditation and discourse last night in response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The assembly, held in DeWitt Park, resonated with tension between conflicting passions: despair for unmitigated suffering, and naked anger for the government’s response to such distress.

The vigil allowed spiritual leaders of many faiths, as well as local residents, to share sentiments with the community. Common to each sermon was an element of shared suffering and compassion.

“We are here for a period of prayer and reflection, and solidarity with those people that have fallen victim to this disaster,” said Jim Semp, a local leader from the Tompkins County Network for Peace and Justice.

Geshe Kunkhen, a Buddhist spiritual leader and disciple of the Dalai Lama echoed Semp’s words: “Everybody has to share with each other and help each other – the best medicine is world peace.”

“What draws us together is a sense of compassion,” added Dr. James R. Henery, pastor from the First Presbyterian Church. “Surrounded by still trees and dry turf, it is hard to imagine that kind of devastation,” he said.

The neutral messages of commonality were often underlined by forceful political statements. “This is a centering moment – a time for us to reflect spiritually, morally, politically,” said Kenneth Clark, director of Cornell United Religious Work, who spoke of the “domestic cost of foreign wars.”

Clark argued that the war on Iraq – a conflict “fought on immoral grounds” – has drained the federal government of the resources and reserve soldiers needed to handle domestic tragedies like the havoc caused by Hurricane Katrina.

For several Ithaca residents, blame for a poor response to devastation was focused especially on President George W. Bush.

“I hold President Bush accountable for those decisions – many of the deaths are a direct result of him not doing what he should have done,” said Sunshine Bannister, an Ithaca citizen and New Orleans native who is still yet to make contact with her family.

Audrey Stewart, an organizer of the vigil, described the impact of Katrina as “overwhelmingly racist and classist.” Consequently, she said, “there is a lot of outrage in the community.”

Clark drew heavily on the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in describing what he saw as the nation’s “fault lines of race and class.” Quoting Dr. King in his plea for unity, Clark said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

For many of the speakers, however, the primary focus of the vigil was neither global nor historic, but local.

“What is happening there implicates our own reality in Ithaca, New York,” Clark said.

“People treat us differently,” Bannister said, commenting on her own experience as a poor Ithaca resident. “This very same thing could have happened here; it might have been your children being raped.”

Class issues raised by the speakers were accented by the makeup of the audience at the vigil – more homeless than Cornell students attended. Even the few Cornell students present were mostly affiliated with campus protest organizations.

Ithaca residents seemed unconcerned with the lack of Cornell students, however. Brien Colgan, an Ithacan who was considering driving down to New Orleans to help relief efforts, blamed the showing on “poor advertising,” and added that there is a “tremendous amount of enthusiasm among young people.”

Archived article by Rob Fishman
Sun Staff Writer