By Frank Ramirez
Gather here in the mystery of this hour.
Gather here in one strong body.
Gather here in the strength and the power.
Spirit, draw near.
It’s become a social media cliché–after every mass shooting, suicide bombing, or other alarming tragedy, the flags go to half mast and people type, sincerely, with a prayerful hands emoji, “thoughts and prayers.”
Monday night at National Older Adult Conference in Lake Junaluska, with everyone both exhilarated by Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm’s message at opening worship, and exhausted from a day or two of travel to North Carolina, around 80 people attended a “Vigil for Holy Hospitality” led by Dave and Kim Witkovsky, the NOAC chaplains.
There were thoughts. There were prayers. But there was also a pledge to act with compassion.
Perhaps there was also some unintentional symbolism. Lights flickered in the darkness in the tent close to the water’s edge, and there seemed to be little help with restoring it.
“This vigil is trying to say prayer is important. It’s critical. It needs to lead us to deeper action,” Dave Witkovsky said. The idea for the vigil “started as a concern for immigration, praying about immigrant rights,” he explained earlier that day, “but it’s grown to be a broader thing. And I would say that it’s become more of an opportunity for us to first of all confess the brokenness in our world, and to reflect together on how we can choose to witness for Christ through a different way of being.”
Kim Witkovsky called the gathering into worship. “We gather in this space together,” she said, because “we believe in the power of prayer to move mountains.” The concerns prompting the vigil–the situations of immigrants and refugees, racism, poverty–are so mountainous they would need to be “transformed by the power of God’s compassion and justice.”
Admitting that these problems have no simple solutions, Dave Witkovsky noted, “Jesus chose to model for us a life of complexities.”
The vigil’s time of confession took the form of a series of prayers and motions intended to move the participants to greater commitment. The motions included bowing one’s head, covering one’s mouth, crossing one’s chest with an arm, and later undoing those actions before shining a light. The prayers were interspersed with scripture readings and hymn choruses. Scriptures included Leviticus 19:34 (you shall love the alien as yourself), verses from Luke 9 regarding welcoming children, Galatians 3:38 (for there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female), Matthew 25:44-45 (whatever you did not do for the least of these you did not do for me), Micah 6:8, and more.
At the close, the light traveled around the circle as one candle was touched to the next, and the light continued to be held as author and commentator Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion was read. Participants were invited to engage Dave and Kim Witkovsky throughout the upcoming week of NOAC to discuss ways to work positively for solutions.
“As a college chaplain I spent a lot of time doing vigils the past 20 years of my life,” Dave Witkovsky shared earlier in the day. “It started with 9/11. Every time there was a mass shooting, natural disaster, suicide bomber, we would hold vigils on campus. Vigils are a good start, but we need to move us to action. For me to the prayer has to be connected to some commitment to action.”
The Charter for Compassion has “become very much an interfaith and international movement to try to get people to live more compassionate lives,” he added. More than two million people worldwide have signed on to the document (go to charterforcompassion.org) .
Dave was formerly Chaplain at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, but in retirement is now working as a medical courier for Lancaster General Health. Kim Witkovsky is one of the chaplains at Cross Keys Village.