What follows is the result of a collaborative effort in keeping with the intention of all aspects of the Philosens vigil.
Philosens, noun: 1. a. A healing process that begins with a commitment to truth. b. The recognition that interdependence is survival. 2. Opposition to violence enacted through systems of economic, social, and political power rooted in whiteness, heteronormative patriarchy, and colonization. 3. a. The presence of our bodies as resistance. b. Unrestricted love. 4. A weekly vigil. (“Phil” from Latin phileo, philia — love, friendship; “sens” from Latin sensus — feel.)
Who are we?
Ella Engel-Snow: A month ago, I came together with the minister of my congregation, the Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson, my mother, Kathy Engel, and two community members, Katie Hammond and Lisa Votino-Tarrant. We met to discuss starting a vigil in Sag Harbor, in the same location where the Women in Black stood week after week during the U.S. war against Iraq.
My mother was one of the people who started the Women in Black, and, although I was in college in New York City at the time, I showed up sporadically when I was home visiting. The East End Women in Black had been inspired by the Palestinian and Israeli mothers who started an international movement to end the Israeli occupation and to address questions of peace and justice.
I recently went back to school and am a semester away from graduating. My senior project is all about language, inventing new words, and creating something I call “the living dictionary.” The Philosens vigil embodies this exploration of the relationship of social change, the public good, and imagination. We held our first Philosens vigil on Valentine’s Day, and will continue to gather on Fridays at 6 p.m. near the windmill in Sag Harbor.
Where are we coming from?
Kathy Engel: I first learned about vigils when I was a child during the U.S. war against Vietnam and the accompanying protest movement. The writer and activist Grace Paley was a family friend and a founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Vigil. Every week for years, people stood at the triangle near Avenue of the Americas and what was then the Women’s House of Detention, now the Jefferson Market Library.
They stood with signs. Sometimes it was one person. Sometimes 50. Sometimes more.
Grace told me when I got older and became active and we were politically engaged together, that what was important was the showing up, week after week, no matter what. These vigils were also inspired by a great and long legacy of people gathering in public spaces to show concern, outrage, grief, and possibility. All. To honor that possibility.
“Without community, there is no liberation.” — Audre Lorde
In 1983, a group of women and I joined together to form MADRE, a project started in sisterhood with women in Central America and the Caribbean who were experiencing war and destruction as a result of U.S. foreign policy. We were inspired by the Mothers of the Disappeared in Chile who had stood day after day, with white scarves and signs, in the hope of recovering their disappeared loved ones. We were inspired by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina who stood day after day, with white scarves and signs, not knowing what else to do, calling out for their loved ones.
They are credited with having changed their country.
A vigil, from the Latin vigilia, meaning wakefulness, is a period of purposeful sleeplessness, an occasion for devotional watching, or an observance.
So when we gather in vigil, it is a sacred act. To be watchful together. To witness. An act of faith. An honoring of those who came before and of the potential power of any group to make change in our lives and our society. Our candles are meant to shed light.
It is never the wrong time to stand in vigil.
What are we doing?
The Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson: When Ella first approached me about the possibility of a vigil, I was immediately all in. For quite some time, I have been alternately and simultaneously outraged, afraid, despairing — about the state of our community, our country, and our world. Like many, I struggle to find an answer for how I can be in this world. I struggle to find an answer for what I can do to address all that is wrong. How can I stand against systems of domination and oppression (racism, patriarchy, militarism) in a way that is meaningful and effective?
This vigil seemed perfect. It was important to me that our vigil not be simply a protest. (As if there is ever anything simple about protest.) Instead, I am called to create spaces and opportunities to explore what is possible — spaces that allow us to imagine and create the world that we want for ourselves and our children.
Our vigil, while naming the exploits of dominance and oppression that diminish our lives, is fundamentally rooted in love. The black feminist scholar bell hooks reminds us that love is more than a feeling — love is a practice. The practice of love reveals that we are interconnected with one another and this planet. The practice of love demands that we work toward our own spiritual growth and the spiritual growth of others. The practice of love demands that we move toward justice and equity.
All three: Because we wake up every morning in crisis and it isn’t new. Because ICE is kidnapping our neighbors. Because according to Elaine Gross, president of Erase Racism, “Long Island is among the 10 most racially segregated metropolitan regions in the country.” Because the crisis is immediate and also distant.
Because indigenous lands are being desecrated. Because the tide is rising. Because it’s all connected, and as Rebecca Hill-Genia of the Shinnecock Nation said in relation to the film “Conscience Point,” “People, no matter what their race or creed, still have to drink the water. You can’t eat dead scallops.”
Because violence is contagious, but so is love. Because we can do more than better; we can evolve. Because we must. Because we must walk into darkness to wake up. Because we believe liberation is possible. Because we follow the leadership of queer, black, indigenous, and people of color feminists.
Because of all this and more, we have named this vigil the Philosens vigil. Philosens is a word that we made up. We have to say what is wrong in the world, and we must say what is possible. We feel that these times call for imagination, invention, and radical change. We are searching for new language, words with depth and the power to evoke new vision.
As we work to make changes in national leadership, and deal with the constant stream of current crisis, we are dedicated to looking at the deeper questions: What got us here and how we can create viable, sustainable, equitable, and joyous shifts in how we live as humans in our communities and on this planet. This is an invitation.
The Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson is the pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton. Ella Engel-Snow grew up in Sagaponack, where she continues to live and work. Kathy Engel is a professor and chair in the department of art and public policy at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts.