Lehigh Community Holds Vigil for New Zealand Shooting Victims

The University Chaplain's Office held the Campus Vigil Friday afternoon inside Packer Memorial Church.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

Campus vigil for New Zealand shooting

Rabbi Steven Nathan, director of Jewish Student Life, speaks at a campus vigil for the New Zealand mass shooting victims inside Packer Memorial Church.

About 150 members of the Lehigh community gathered Friday afternoon inside Packer Memorial Church for a campus vigil in solidarity with those suffering loss in the wake of the March 15 terrorist attacks on mosque worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The vigil, sponsored by the University Chaplain’s Office, featured two scheduled speakers – Lloyd Steffen, professor of Religion Studies and university chaplain and Rabbi Steven Nathan, director of Jewish Student Life – and six others, including current and former faculty, students and a community member. Walead Mossad, director of Muslim Student Life, saved his remarks for his sermon during the regular Friday Muslim service, which followed the vigil.

“I don’t want to be here today,” Nathan said. “None of us want to be here today. Too often we are gathered together to mourn the dead, to remember their lives. Too often we have gathered together to remember the lives that have been taken by violence in our world.”

He reminded attendees that vigil was the third one for mass shooting tragedies that had been held on campus since the beginning of the academic year. The first followed the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, just over a week later was the Thousand Oaks, Calif., shooting at a country-western bar frequented by college students and now one for the New Zealand mosque attacks.

“I wish I had a solution. I wish I had an answer,” he said. “But I don’t. All I know is that in the face of the horror of violence that leads to the reality of our world, we must also remember the love and passion and connection, that is, I believe the greater reality. Remembering this will help us as we do the difficult work of fighting hatred.”

Mohsen Mahdawi ’22 speaks at a campus vigil for the New Zealand mass shooting

Mohsen Mahdawi ’22, a Palestinian refugee, shares his personal experiences with attendees.

In addition to the speakers, those attending the vigil also expressed moving sentiments. Mohsen Mahdawi ’22, a Palestinian refugee, shared remarks he prepared and read after the Tree of Life shooting.

“The scene is different, the time is different, the religion is different but the message is the same,” Mahdawi said, as he rejected all kinds of violence and condemned the terror attacks. And his connection to the victims remained just as strong.

He explained that he knows the pain, suffering, sound of bullets and feeling of losing loved ones — his best friend, uncle, two cousins and other friends were killed in the war Israel declared against Palestine, he said. Echoing many of the other speakers, Mahdawi spoke about how similar all humans are, but he took it a step further when he pointed out that pain is something everyone experiences the same way.

“My experience says we are all similar and the enemy is fear,” Mahdawi said. “The enemy is segregation. The enemy is ignorance. And we won’t be able to break through the enemy unless we have open hearts.”

Rick Weisman, a retired water resources engineering professor at Lehigh, also shared his personal connection to the tragedy. Both Weisman and his wife emigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand for a period of time and had a child born in the city. They all eventually returned to the United States, with his son attending Lehigh.

Steffen opened the nearly 35-minute vigil by recounting the horrific events which took place in New Zealand offered prayers to the victims and their families and acknowledged the Lehigh community coming together to share that grief.

“The outpouring of support for the people of New Zealand expresses the clear desire to shun violence, to condemn hate speech and to call for the building for the more peaceful and less violent world,” Steffen said.

Nathan spoke next, beginning his remarks with a wish that Friday’s gathering was not necessary.

Walead Mossad leads a Muslim service following a campus vigil for the New Zealand mass shooting victims.

Walead Mossad, director of Muslim Student Life, leads the regular Friday Muslim service following a campus vigil for the New Zealand mass shooting victims.

He shared a story of rabbis in ancient times comparing the creation of humans to the minting of coins. The rabbis said, according to Nathan, both were made from the same mold – coins featuring human faces on the front, human molds that have the image of the divine ruler on them. But each human is unique. What is inside makes humans the same but it’s who humans are in so many other ways that make them different and unique. That, Nathan said, is the beauty of what it means to be human, although he said the terrorist in New Zealand, as well as the shooters in the other attacks, ignore or intentionally deny that fact. Nathan said it was up to everyone to remember that it is diversity that “makes us beautiful and our inner essence is what makes us divine.”

He then rhetorically asked those in attendance how to spread that message into their campus, community, country and world, since those in attendance likely already know that essential truth.

Nathan concluded his remarks by pausing for a moment of silence and meditation before opening the floor and inviting others to share their thoughts.

Donald Outing, vice president for equity and community and the university’s diversity and inclusion officer, was the first to speak after the moment of silence.

As many of the speakers at the vigil did, Outing made a call to lead by example through these trying times.

“We must, each of us, continue to try and reject the bigotry and the hatred,” Outing said. “And we must continue, in our own individual ways to lead lives of kindness.”

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu