Children continue to be terrorized by the daily reality that there is no safe space in our gun-saturated country. They are filled with fear they will be killed in a school shooting, on the streets of their neighborhoods and even in the sacred places where they and their families worship. A Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. And now the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where worshipers had gathered on Saturday morning for Shabbat services and for a bris to celebrate the birth of a new child.
The Anti-Defamation League said they believe the tragedy at the Tree of Life is the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history. This horrifying hate crime comes as our country is experiencing an historic increase in anti-Semitic violence, vandalism and harassment, including a sharp rise in reported hate incidents in schools. The tragic escalation of dangerous intolerance and bigotry that condones and incites violence is no secret and no surprise in America right now.
At a vigil the night after the Tree of Life murders, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers received thunderous applause when he begged leaders to “stop the words of hate.” Our children and grandchildren desperately need leaders who are actually capable of doing that and of working instead to create the safer, kinder, more just nation and future they deserve.
This was made even clearer to me when I learned that the terrorist attack in Squirrel Hill happened so close to the home of Fred Rogers, our beloved Mr. Rogers who shared his neighborhood with us and our children. His life’s mission was to make every child feel loved, valued, appreciated, and welcome in his neighborhood. As soon as the shootings happened many people remembered the words of comfort Mr. Rogers gave to children confronted with terrifying events: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
What would Mr. Rogers tell our children about today’s epidemic of hatred and bigotry, stoked by some political leaders at the highest levels, and fueled by our inability to protect our children and all our citizens from guns everywhere?! He once said, “Imagine what our real neighbors would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person. There have been so many stories about the lack of courtesy, the impatience of today’s world, road rage and even restaurant rage. Sometimes, all it takes is one kind word to nourish another person. Think of the ripple effect that can be created when we nourish someone. One kind empathetic word has a wonderful way of turning into many.”
These are the lessons and this is the example our children desperately need today — beginning in the White House. In the wake of yet another senseless act of deadly gun violence, we must all channel the spirit, teachings and example of Mr. Rogers to explain to our children how to counteract the hatred that plagues our society.
Fred Rogers also taught us: “At the center of the Universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything that we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds. Life is for service.” You and I and all of us in America and the world who want to see safe and welcoming communities must work unceasingly for this vision until Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood is our own.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund.