For a month about simplicity (our church monthly theme), the current cultural moment is anything but simple. Since the news broke on Sunday about the terrible shooting in Orlando, I’ve been back and forth with all sorts of emotions: angry, sad, scared, despairing, loving, and hopeful. All of these, and more, all at once.
The sad part hits me off and on, as flashes of images from the event come into contact with my own sense memories. I cried desperately when I saw the names and faces of the deceased as I immediately remembered this great gay latinx bar in Denver Carri and I went to a few times. Our first visit, I tried not to stare at the sweet macho hispanic men with their boots, button up shirts and cowboy hats, dancing the two step with their equally macho hispanic partners. It was so beautiful, courageous, tender, transgressive. It was a safe space in a world of risk. Just like that club would have been for the revelers in Orlando.
And I cried when I saw those texts from the son to the mom from within the nightclub, saying he was going to die, hoping they’d send help soon. I imagined that mom, being that mom, having that mom – getting those texts. Dear, God. It’s all too much.
I’ve spent much of the past few days, however, in anger. First, why did he have to be Omar? Why couldn’t he be Steven? Or, Phillip? Tom? John? Anything except a name that gave fuel to the already-blazing fire of racism and Islamophobia.
And why did he have to make that call to 911 making claims of ties to ISIS? Now we can so easily blame this on someone else (“How should we name this enemy?” I heard a reporter ask a congressional representative) – rather than realizing that this is a special sort of hatred and violence that we make here. Here, with our particular forces of homophobia, consumerism, misogyny, racism. Here with our ridiculously permissive gun laws. Here in this culture of violence, this culture where the only option for those we disagree with is to hurt them, kill them, demolish them….all of which has been repeatedly reinforced by a presidential nominee. “In the old days, we’d take him [someone who disagreed] out in a stretcher,” he’s said – and worse.
I’m angry that gay people still can’t give blood. I’m angry that we had to explain this to our kids, that they keep overhearing us talk about it, see us upset, hear the news reports – that we have to keep trying to explain it, and that we try to do so with logic, when there is no logic, and there is no explanation.
And I’m angry because all of this is intensifies my growing anger at the ways the religious message has been co-opted so completely by capitalism and imperialism. This has been true for a long time (maybe, almost always), and yet it hit me so hard this week. How is it possible that we have self-described Christians who can hear the violence and aggression of Trump and reconcile that with “turn the other cheek,” or “pray for those who persecute you,” or “Blessed are the meek”? There are many calls for Muslims to refute the shooter as antithetical to Islam, yet just as troubling are the Christians who are supporting messages that motivate and justify these acts of violence.
Most of all I’m angry because this is such old news. It has always been risky to be queer, to be brown, to be feminine/femme… risky to be all of these things and joyful at 2 am with your friends, as if you could really be that free. Although much of the straight world woke up with Matthew Shepherd, those of us who live in these bodies, in these lives, knew it way before that. We learn it early: our lives are disposable. These past few years, we were given this idea from you all that we were safe – this “gay marriage” business, but still we wondered if, as Audre Lorde said, “we were never meant to survive.” Even more so for GLBTQ persons of color, which were from what I can tell, nearly all of the victims in Orlando.
The presidential race has enabled a renewed permissiveness, to turn us back in time (compare: “Make America great again” to James Baldwin’s “Let America be America again. America was never America to me“) – to say once again, openly, boldly, to all who are identified as “other,” you don’t belong here. Under the guise of anti-political correctness, it’s ok to hate gay people again, it’s ok to threaten them, bash them, kill them – openly. It’s ok to think less of Mexicans, to imagine them only as “rapists, drug dealers….” And it’s ok to “rough up” anyone who isn’t like you, doesn’t agree with you – and at the very least, it’s completely advisable to make fun of them. And this is the result.
I’m angry we are at such a terrible stalemate with reasonable gun control. How is it possible that people on terrorist watch lists should be able to buy legal guns?! How is it possible it’s harder to buy sudafed than it is to buy an AR-15?
Still, to reduce this to anger at gun policy would be to miss the greater context we are in, and to let us all mostly off the hook. We grew this man up, in our culture, in our society. He learned his values from us – our racism, our homophobia, our sexism, our glorification of violence. He is an American. My anger turns to despair.
Not to mention, I’m afraid. Afraid for my immediate and the larger GLBTQ family, for our immediate and wider circle of Hispanic family members, for all people of color, for women, for the disabled, for the aging, for allies – for all of us. We are so terribly at risk.
These feelings were overwhelming me for much of Sunday and Monday. I was seeing notices of vigils by my colleagues and honestly, I wanted none of it. The idea felt hollow, empty. What would I say at a vigil that wouldn’t seem like empty promises? How many times must we light candles? Will I spend my ministerial career holding vigils for these acts of violence, finding words of comfort, trying to make meaning out of no-meaning?
I thought of the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk, who laments: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” (Another mis-read of traditional religion: that it’s not OK to question God, or be angry with God….when I have heard this, I always wonder if the person claiming it has ever read the prophets? Or Job? I mean, come on!)
I spoke to another Fort Collins clergyperson on Monday morning about my resistance to doing a vigil, and he said, “yeah, instead of a vigil, maybe we need to organize a sit-in.” Yes, I thought. Enough.
And then, Monday around noon, the call came in from Kimberly Chambers of Northern Colorado Pride. She was wondering if I would speak at the evening’s candlelight vigil, five hundred people had RSVPd so far, it was at Old Town Square, could I speak on behalf of the faith community in solidarity with the GLBTQ community and the victims in Orlando?
What other answer do you say when you get this call, except yes? Or at least, when I get this call. So my only question was – what would it take for me to say yes? Immediately, I knew: partners. It would take partners.
What other clergy were speaking? Any others from the interfaith community? None, she said….yet. I asked if it would be ok if I reached out to my interfaith colleagues, so that we could demonstrate solidarity (aka they could offer words when I had no words, faith when I had no faith, prayers when I could find no prayers). She was enthusiastic, so I reached out.
Within 20 minutes, Rabbi Shoshana Leis from Har Shalom, Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson from Plymouth UCC, and Shakir Muhammad, Co-Imam from the Islamic Center were all on board and willing to stand up with me. Ten minutes after that, Rev. Melissa St. Clair from Heart of the Rockies (Disciples of Christ) and Pastor David Williams from the Abyssinian Church had also said yes. We had a crew. Meanwhile, Rev. Andy Boesenecker from Mustard Seed House Churches and Rector Greg Foraker reached out, and said it would be an honor to simply stand in silence during our speaking. Which is how it came to be that despite my misgivings, I spoke at the vigil.
Before I get to the vigil, however, I need to go back to Sunday night, when I posted a version of this blog post on Facebook. At the end, I spoke about love, and grounding all this anger in love. I said, “through it all, I still hold on to love, it’s an anger grounded in that love – an anger that comes out of an awareness – we are meant for so much more, so much better than this. And so I end the day praying, and with gratitude, for so many of you.”
I wrote all that, but truthfully, I wasn’t feeling it. It was like a UU dark night of the soul. Love was absent, I couldn’t access it. All I could feel was the anger, despair, bitterness. And still, I wrote it because I knew in my mind, it was true. I wanted it to be true. And I (mostly) had faith it would be true again.
Which brings me to the vigil on Monday night. It was raining, and chilly for a June night in Fort Collins. I am guessing I’m not the only one who had flashes of a person with an assault rifle showing up in our gathering just as he has done in Orlando, and many times before, and how vulnerable we all would be. It was last minute publicity (for obvious reasons). It was 8:00 on a weekday evening. All of these things I say because you would not believe how many people came.
Unusually for me, I arrived with no script (no iPad). I stepped up to the microphone, and I looked out at what I’m guessing was over 500 people. Young, old, queer, straight, brown, black, white, families, differently-abled, women, men, *trans, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, UU, “nones.” So many people, so many different people. Just there, in the rain, bearing witness, grieving, despairing, wanting something more. And there, for that moment, the light returned, and I found the love. It wasn’t just faith, it was tangible, true. Here it was.
The other clergy put their hands on my shoulder, and one another’s. We heard Jewish prayers, Christian prayers (from both a liberal and conservative tradition), Muslim prayers, and finally I returned for the Unitarian Universalist closing, where I invited the whole crowd to sing Meditation on Breathing. Touching one another’s shoulders. Breathing in peace, breathing out love. We were indivisible. Together.
The night went on, and many community leaders offered words of comfort, grief, and love. I confess I still had moments of wondering if we were foolish to be offering comfort without pairing it with tangible action (as Rep. Himes said on the House floor on Monday: “The moments of silence have become an abomination. God will ask us, ‘How did you keep my children safe?’ Silence.”), but then I just kept looking out. The crowd, the longing, the many, coming together as one, the easy yes from my interfaith colleagues.And I decided it didn’t really matter what was practical, we had to choose hope.
Not just any hope, however. As Rebecca Solnit writes, the hope we need is “not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky, [but] an ax you break down doors with in an emergency.” She says “hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world is possible, not promised, not guaranteed.” And I appreciate this last bit, because sometimes we get so discouraged that our collective action doesn’t bring that changed world, and we/I despair. When we remember that hope is not a guarantee of a better world, but rather a call to action, we might imagine that this is the work of a lifetime, over which, things may never change all that much. Like I said before – we are so vulnerable – and still we act. Still we love. Still we dance. Still we sing. And we do this because of the love, the faith, the hope.
I stand with you, my friends and allies, my family, my people. And across the nation and the world, so many people are standing with Orlando, and for love. As I reminded the crowd Monday night, our faith calls us to live out that great idea that “we need not think alike to love alike.” These forces of anger and division are relying on our retreat into anger and hatred. Let us meet all of this instead, with resilient, courageous love, across all of our differences. Let us welcome all who welcome all. I love you.