By Mark E. Vogler
HAVERHILL — Close to 100 people gathered on the front steps of City Hall last night to share their prayers for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and to call on the nation’s political leaders to take steps to keep the tragedy from happening again.
“May our politicians in Washington and also mental health professionals come together and see what needs to be fixed in our world, because our world is in great need of being repaired,” Rabbi Ira Korinow of Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill said.
“May we take those steps to encourage those who have the power to make changes in our world and changes in our culture. May we do so together as individuals and as a community,” he said.
Rabbi Korinow was one of three local members of the local religious community who participated in the prayer vigil. The Rev. John Delaney, pastor of Sacred Hearts Parish in Bradford, and the Rev. Frank Clarkson of the Unitarian Universalist Church joined him. Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini, Haverhill School Superintendent James Scully and other city leaders also turned out to support the event.
“Hopefully vigils, like the one we’re holding tonight, are reported around the country and the message is clear to Congress to act on this now and protect the children,” Haverhill School Committee member Joseph Bevilaqua said in an interview before the event.
“One thing we can all agree upon is that it’s time to stop this senseless violence against children. This is the most important issue in the country right now,” said Bevilaqua, who is also president of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“While they’re debating the fiscal cliff in Congress, this is something that should pass easily. I am pleased the president is trying to get something done. Who would disagree that you have to protect the children of this country. One thing parents need to know when they bring their kids to school is that they are going to be safe,” he said.
President Barack Obama announced yesterday that he is asking a team led by Vice President Joe Biden to offer “concrete proposals” to curb gun violence no later than January, in the aftermath of the horrific massacre at a Connecticut elementary school.
Obama said after he receives recommendations from Biden’s group, he will push legislation “without delay.” The president is urging Congress to hold votes on the bill.
Obama said the issue is complex but added, “we have a deep obligation — all of us — to try.”
Biden, a longtime gun control advocate, will lead a team that will include members of Obama’s administration and outside groups.
The president’s call for action comes after last Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Twenty children and six adults were killed at the school by a gunman wielding a semi-automatic rifle.
Mayor Fiorentini reassured the crowd that Haverhill police and public officials are doing all they can to protect the city’s children from a similar tragedy.
“This one (event) makes us realize how important our teachers and our principals are. They risked their lives to save the school children,” the mayor said.
“This event also makes us realize that prayer vigils aren’t enough. We also need action by our Congress to take dangerous weapons off the street,” he said.
The mayor recognized Geraldo Pagan, a city resident and a mental health professional, who along with his daughter Yesenia Pagan, requested that they be allowed to organize the vigil. Many young, grade school-aged children attended last night with their parents.
“My sister, Ericka, who is 12, got all her friends at school — John Greenleaf Whittier — to be here tonight,” said Yesenia, 22, a senior majoring in psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.
Yesenia said she found the presidents speech yesterday “touching.”
Ruth Cabrera, of Lawrence, a mental health counselor, said she attended the vigil “to talk to people who need some conversation.”
On of those people was the mother of a 10-year-old Haverhill boy who has been worrying about her son’s safety in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
“The mom was a bit afraid to send him back to school,” Cabrera said.
“She said she kept home for one day. In talking to the parents, I do hear the anxiety of making sure the schools are safe,” she said.
Cabrera, like many in the crowd who shared their concerns, said she was glad to hear that President Obama was pushing hard for tougher gun control measures.
But, she said solving the problem of violence in America “is not just as simple a solution as gun control.”
“Why is it so difficult for people who need help to find mental health counseling. It’s easier to buy a gun. I think it’s going to take more than gun control,” Cabrera said.
Rabbi Korinow prayed that the strength and faith of the gathering “will give some measure of comfort to the people of Newtown.”