Conducting a Vigil: Bringing Communities Together in the Face of Tragedy

Published December 05, 2017 by Reverend Dr Tom Wilson

Community, Vigils, Chaplaincy, Interfaith

Interfaith, Coexistence, Chaplaincy, Community

The Reverend Dr Tom Wilson is director of the St Philip's Centre in Leicester, which provides training and consultancy on interfaith and multifaith issues for a wide range of local and national bodies, including the Home Office, schools, the city council, and the police. 

You never know when you will have to conduct a vigil; the nature of tragedy is that it takes us unawares. But this does not stop us planning. Given recent history, with four terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom in a few short months, it is important for faith leaders and communities to have some idea of how they might respond should something terrible happen.  

Vigils are public expressions of grief, and so should be planned in collaboration rather than as solo efforts. Working out who needs to be in the room to plan the most effective vigil is the type of groundwork that can be done at any time by responsible civic society organisations in partnership with local councils.  

Broadly speaking, there are three contingencies to plan for: first, an attack close to, or in, the area in which you live; second, an attack elsewhere in the United Kingdom; third, an attack elsewhere in the world that somehow impacts the place where you live. The first would have the greatest impact on civic society, and would require the fastest response. At a time when people are panicked and unsure, it is vital to bring people together, to express concern, solidarity and a determination to work for peace. It is also vital to involve the media, both broadcast and print journalism, as well as social media. Sometimes the best we can do in these situations is to provide a faith-informed perspective that speaks of hope, of rebuilding, of working for the good of all. Preparing and releasing statements the day after an incident is one simple way to ensure such positive content is heard.  

The type of incident will have a significant impact on the response offered. If an attack is local, then everyone is immediately likely to want to work together. But international incidents are the more complex. Take the example of Israel/Palestine. Jews, Muslims and Christians may have very different understandings of what the significance of a particular incident is, and how it should be responded to. Similarly, Hindus and Sikhs may well differ in how they respond to something in the Punjab region of India. In these circumstances, it can be difficult to determine what an effective vigil might look like. Sometimes it is better to let an individual community determine their own response rather than try and force false unity. 

We live in an age where the news-cycle moves quickly, but the emotional impact of successive attacks and tragedies can be profound. Vigils provide one important way to help communities process their grief and to work together for peace.   

Tom Wilson and Riaz Ravat recently published Learning to Live Well Together  which offers insights into the interfaith encounter in the UK today. To read an extract from the chapter on 'Trust', click here.  
To read Tom’s last article Visiting the Mosque: what happens when parents object, click here.

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