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Berry Carroll, left, and Beth Long hold candles at a vigil in support of immigrants held at Coolidge Park on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn., in the wake of President Donald J. Trump's executive order on immigration. The vigil, titled "We All Belong," was held in partnership with Bridge Refugee Services.

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Over a thousand people join candlelight vigil for refugees

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David Cook

It was last minute. On a school night. And not a single North Shore parking space to be found. Seriously. Not one.

Yet even still, as if pulled by some beautiful gravity, some democratic magnet, more than 1,000 Chattanoogans met together at Coolidge Park on Wednesday evening, drawn together by a vision of America that is pluralistic, loving and unafraid.

More than 1,000.

Created in opposition to the White House order barring refugees, it was a vigil that felt like church and looked like the Constitution come to life. So many human rights were there: assembly, prayer, nationality, dignity, freedom of movement.

Homemade signs were stenciled with Emma Lazarus and M.L. King quotes. There were speakers from Egypt, Colombia, Pakistan, all of them now Americans. The crowd sang "This Little Light of Mine" as candles, held high in the moonlight, dripped wax on so many different hands: brown, black, white, rich, poor, young and old.

"Ya'll means all," proclaimed the Rev. Zack Nyein, with Grace Episcopal Church, from the park stage. "Love your neighbors. All your neighbors."

The vigil sent a message, a way for Chattanooga to repeat the sounding joy: We all belong.

"We all belong," the crowd chanted, echoing off the carousel and North Shore buildings.

For that hour, Coolidge Park became a field of American Dreams; we believe in it, and we came.

"Just for a moment, it felt like the kingdom of God," said the Rev. Charles Neal, pastor emeritus at First- Centenary United Methodist.

Only only, there were two groups missing.

The first? Twenty refugees, who had been vetted, approved and ticketed to arrive in Chattanooga, according to Marina Pehterianu, director of Bridge Refugee Services. Apartments furnished. Volunteers warmly waiting.

Then, the president's pen.

"Seven families," she said. "Half were children."

Along with Neema Resettlement Ministries, Bridge coordinates the arrival and welcoming of refugees in our city. Here, and across the U.S., doing so is an act of both love and safety.

"No person accepted to the United States as a refugee, Syrian or otherwise, has been implicated in a major fatal terrorist attack since the Refugee Act of 1980," CNN reports.

Yes, we want safe and secure borders. And the end of Islamic terrorism.

We also want the honor of providing safety and peace to refugee families fleeing for their lives.

Which brings us to the second group missing Wednesday night.

Conservatives.

Yes, really. I wish more of you had been there. (Frankly, I'm tired of the Left talking only to itself. If we're going to fight for inclusion for refugees, we ought to be inclusive toward conservatives, too.)

You would have been right at home. Conservatism has always articulated the values so clearly embodied in American refugees. Their hard work. The quest for the American Dream. Modesty, tradition, religion. Refugees don't come here to march with Madonna or Michael Moore; they come here to survive. And love their families. And this country.

Wouldn't conservatism welcome that?

"We immigrants have massive hearts," Mohsin Ali told the crowd. "We have huge hearts."

Ali is a Pakistani Muslim who emigrated to Chattanooga, which makes him an American, just like you and me.

Men and women like Ali — compassionate, generous, conscientious — are the reason why so many of the rest of us oppose President Trump's order.

Why would we keep out the very people who can help make America great again?

"Look around everywhere and you will see us," Ali told the crowd. "We clean houses, we drive taxis, we bag groceries, we serve at restaurants, we teach at schools, we work for the city, and in law enforcement. We are doctors and lawyers and engineers, business leaders, scientists and politicians. We can't be president, but our children can. And they will!"

Ali thanked Chattanooga for all it had given him. He repledged his devotion to this city. He spoke like the truest of Americans.

"This is the greatest nation on Earth because it is our home, our precious and beloved home," he said. "God bless America."

And may God bless those 20 families, out there in the terrified dark, waiting and dreaming.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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