On Sept. 3, in response to the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, WaterFire invited the community to assemble at the Rhode Island Holocaust Memorial to reaffirm our commitment to the principles of equality, tolerance and justice. Let us remember that Roger Williams founded Providence in 1636 explicitly as a “shelter for persons distressed for conscience.”
Thousands gathered in solidarity at the memorial, now inscribed with the names of those who survived the death camps and came to Rhode Island to build new and vibrant lives. We invited leaders of the Native American, African-American, Armenian, Jewish and Cambodian communities to set the bonfires alight while accompanied by music from their heritage.
Grandchildren of survivors of the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian genocide helped place candle lanterns to illuminate the path. Then everyone placed a glass pebble on the Life Stone. By midnight, thousands of pebbles reflected our resolve to remember.
Surely Charlottesville reminds us that we must remember history if we are not to repeat it. As a community, we must remain vigilant against the dark dangers of racism and hatred, and fight to affirm the founding principles of our nation — equality, freedom and justice.
Our mission at WaterFire is to inspire. WaterFire is not just a community celebration, but a celebration of community itself, one that transforms how we see ourselves. People have gathered along the downtown rivers for 23 years to celebrate the many things we value in common, while sharing the different traditions that make each of our communities so richly vibrant.
Our central symbol is light — actual firelight that illuminates our city in an exciting new way. And symbolic light — the ancient symbol of Prometheus’ torch, representing enlightenment, teaching, liberty, leadership, initiative, creativity and inspiration itself.
The Torch of Knowledge, representing teaching, shines forth from the dome of the Library of Congress. The Statue of Liberty’s torch enlightens all the world. We carry that torch with us every day — the torch of liberty shines forth brightly on the dime, designed just after World War II to commemorate liberty’s triumph over tyranny.
The mob in Charlottesville wielded torches, but not in a paean of inspiration, but in a hate-filled march. That the sacred torch of liberty and inspiration could be twisted to support hatred is deeply disturbing. Marchers debased even language itself with false uses of words like “freedom,” “liberty,” “fact” and “patriotism.” We must respond to these deceptions with resolve and defend the values our nation stands for. Silence, complacency, creating false equivalencies, or abandoning our nation’s principles and symbols are all akin to surrender.
The students of the University of Virginia brilliantly spoke for justice as they reclaimed firelight a few nights later in their song-filled candlelight vigil rejecting hatred.
This weekend, WaterFire’s torches will once again honor community leaders with our Prometheia procession — based on the original Athenian torch ceremony honoring leadership, initiative, creativity and service to others.
At Saturday’s lighting, we will salute and honor the University of Rhode Island for 125 years of teaching excellence. URI will be joined by the new Teacher of the Year and 75 award-winning educators from across the state. We salute and thank URI and honor all our teachers who give so much to our state and bring such light into our lives.
WaterFire’s music on Sept. 3 closed with a 1954 recording of journalist Edward R. Murrow:
“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason … This is no time for men … to keep silent. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we … proclaim ourselves … the defenders of freedom … but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”
Let us resolve that our community will continue to honor bearers of light, who fight the darkness of hatred with resolve, justice, leadership, education, inspiration and love.
Barnaby Evans created WaterFire Providence in 1994. The free event is made possible by the contributions of donors, volunteers and sponsors in partnership with the city and state.
Originally published in the Providence Journal on September 21st, 2017
Featured image: Waterplace Park Basin during the September 23rd, 2017 WaterFire lighting. Photograph by John Nickerson.