A World Shattered, A Time to Be Together
They came in twos and threes: friends holding hands, parents with protective arms around their children, colleagues embracing each other. Under a clear starlit sky, thousands of students, faculty and staff - and in some cases their families - assembled Wednesday evening on the Student Union Mall. Faces were somber, some wept openly, others recounted how they heard the news.
It was a time for the community to come together, to rally in the face of the tragic events of the previous day, when terrorist acts resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center, a portion of the Pentagon, and an as yet uncounted toll of human lives.
"Yesterday, we as a University, as a community, experienced horror, terror, fear, and uncertainty," said Chris Hattayer, president of the Undergraduate Student Government, addressing the crowd, estimated at about 3,000. The event was organized by USG.
"We will remember 11th September 2001 for the rest of our lives," he said, "and it may turn out to be the defining moment of our lives.
"Our grief, our sorrow, will stay with us," Hattayer said, "but we will move forward. Let us realize our common humanity and appreciate the compassion surrounding us this evening as we begin to heal."
Chancellor John D. Petersen said, "We share collectively in the grief of a nation."
The community that constitutes the University is diverse, he said, but regardless of where we come from, "we all share in the same emotions, the same grief, wonder, fury, anxiety.
"There will be a number of things we do as a community to find ways to get through our grief," and one of these is to engage in the study of human rights, he said.
"What happened yesterday was something that demonstrated to us that as a nation we've been relatively isolated." The study of human rights and of what we have in common as human beings can help bring us together, he added.
The chancellor urged those assembled to "take the events of yesterday and use them to shape our lives as citizens and members of a larger community than the University and, in tribute to those that lost their lives, be better citizens."
Ken Ferguson, minister of the Storrs Congregational Church, representing local religious groups, said that although the University community represents many faiths, and some do not have any religious beliefs, "we share a common, shattering bond. This is not a time to be divided by race or tribe or color or creed. We are one human family.
"Our challenge is to let peace begin within each of us," he added, "to begin with each interaction, within each relationship."
Ferguson, the parent of a UConn student, said the lighting of candles was "a declaration of freedom from fear, a testimony to our hope that these events will not lead to further violence, an outward and visible sign that we are not alone.
"Nationality is not as important as humanity," he said. "This is only the beginning of a marathon to overcome hatred and racism. The campus and the community has the opportunity to respond with valor, with distinction, with dignity, and transform our hurt and horror into acts of caring."
The flame was then passed from one candle to another, until thousands of tiny lights lit up the Mall. The crowd rose to their feet, and held the candles aloft in a gesture of hope, joining in John Lennon's song, "Imagine." An impromptu recital of the Pledge of Allegiance followed, and spontaneous renderings of "America the Beautiful," "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Amazing Grace," "Kumbayah," and "Lean on Me."
The crowd was slow to disperse. Many lingered until their candles burned down.