Reflecting on the Orlando Massacre
My reading today is a simple one. It comes to us from the Beatitudes of Jesus of Nazareth found in the Gospel of Matthew:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Here is how I imagined today. I imagined little slips of paper being folded nicely in each order of service. I imagined enough pens and pencils to go around. I imagined soft music playing in the background as people wrote on those slips of paper and put them in a collection plate.
I imagined the sound of the papers being put in a box. And I imagined the joy in pulling each piece of paper at random from the box and answering the question one of you had written on it. Today was to be our first ever Question Box Sunday.
A Sunday where the gathered people are free to ask the minister any question relating to religion and as the questions are pulled at random, with no knowledge of what they may be, the answers serve as the sermon for the day. It is at once a joyful and somewhat petrifying premise for a end of the church year service.
Today it won’t be happening. But it will, no doubt, in a couple months, I can assure you of this. Keep your eyes open for it. You now have time to think of the most absurd or most thoughtful questions possible. But today, there is only one question that rests on my heart, and, I pray, it may be resting on your heart as well.
It is a question that we are getting all to comfortable reflecting on for days at a time. It is a question that, perhaps, we are finding ourselves asking devoid of emotion. There may be a numbness to it. It’s is fundamentally the most important question in times like this, and it is, at heart, the question that has given rise to all of our myths, religions, philosophies, scientific discoveries, and, yes, our joys, our contentments, our wonderings, and our grief.
It is simple. And it is the only question that matters today. That question is: Why? Why are we remember forty-nine souls, gone forever from the world, why are we remember one soul, also gone forever but responsible for destroying so much life before destroying his own?
Why is our nation gathering time after time after time after time to mourn and remember? Why is nothing being done? Why are we feeling numb? Why is it getting worse? Why must our elected leaders lie to us and lie to themselves? Why did the massacre in Orlando have to happen? Why?
I will go ahead and admit this. I am completely numb to news of mass shootings these days. And it is not because the heart is not breaking, it is, but because the frequency and immensity of these tragedies is being locked away in my innermost self. Intellectually I can mourn.
But emotionally, there is this feeling of being enveloped in a numbing embrace — like winter in Chicago — it’s as if I have lost feeling in my heart by an unrelenting, stinging, wind. As with any numbness, there is the eventual tingle, the returning of feeling, the thawing of fingers and faces and hearts — as any good therapist will tell you, there is no avoiding the emotions of tragedy. They will catch up to you.
And my emotions have caught up with me. They’ve caught up with me not just because I am an LGBT american and terrorism has been visited upon those who are like me. It is not just because this tragedy has been met with thoughts and prayers from the very same politicians that legislate oppression — some of those politicians are from this very state, I should add.
And it is not just because this is the worst mass shooting in the history of this nation since the Wounded Knee Massacre. My emotions have caught up to me because sometimes you can only take so much carnage, so much apathy, so much disingenuous prayer, so much of the same story over and over again. I am left wondering when we will hit the reset button on the events of Orlando and wait for it to happen again.
Are you outraged? Is your heart wrestling with despair? Are you wondering when it will stop? I know I am wondering. I am wrestling and losing the fight for hopefulness. I am outraged. I am outraged by our politicians. I am outraged by those who think this will just go away.
I am outraged by 49 names of people that were unceremoniously snuffed out by homophobia, extremism, and the idolatry of the second amendment. As the saying goes, if you are not outraged, you are not paying attention. But it begs us to ask the question of if we are indeed paying attention.
Were we paying attention at Columbine, Newtown, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Blacksburg, Orlando, or the hundreds upon hundreds of mass shootings this nation has endured? Were we paying attention? Were we paying attention when the occurrence of mass shootings became so great that this country averages one per day?
Were we paying attention when our elected leaders told us more guns would make us safe? Were we paying attention when the NRA shifted from an organization that sought to regulate guns to one that worshipped them? Were we and are we and, if not, can we? I say we intentionally — clergy are not exempt from the causes of justice before us in this world.
For years I have lived comfortably in the knowledge that I will not be victim to a mass shooting. I tell you this as a lifelong Chicagoan as well — where gun violence is a daily tragedy — where forty nine names is one weekend is to be considered a minor victory because it does not break the record.
I tell you this as a white cisgendered male that knew the comforts of suburban life. I tell you this, also, as an LGBT American. I have not been paying attention. I have not wanted to pay attention.
But we are coming to a place in the life of this country where we can no longer ignore the problems before us without suffering in our own lives. We cannot build our days upon a hardness of heart. We cannot say, “This will not happen to me.” Because it is happening to you.
You might not be gay, you might not go to a nightclub, but you also might not be six years old like the children killed at Newtown or fifteen years old like those at Columbine.
Yes, these attacks can be targeted, yes these attacks can be rooted in a specific hatred, but so, too, they are indiscriminate and made possible by an amendment that was written for muskets, a crumbling mental healthcare system, the stubbornness of politicians, and the quietness of their constituents — that’s you and me.
Our silence on the injustices and tragedies of our world implies our consent. If we truly believe in the interdependent web of all existence — then all are complicit in the tragedies of the world. It’s that simple. We either believe we are connected and a part of this good earth, or we recuse ourselves until tragedy befalls our own communities.
So what can we do? What can we do with all of the anger and unrest that might be stirring within our hearts? I ask this for myself just as much for the rest of us. Because I am indeed angry. And I find it terribly hard to be a Unitarian Universalist at moments such as these.
How can I greet the day with hopefulness and how can I see inherent worth and dignity in those who would destroy life? To say that this religious path or any path where hope is its gospel is easy is a fools errand. A faith that is rooted in hope leaves more questions than answers and it teaches us a bittersweet truth:
Our hopes may not be for ourselves. They may be for those yet to come. And so it warms my heart to see those who’ve championed oppression turning to the cause of hope and action.
The Lt. Governor of Utah, Spencer Cox, a mormon, reflected in one such way about Orlando and bigotry in general. After writing of his own upbringing as a mormon and the bigotry he once held, he reflects:
But now we are here. We are here because 49 beautiful, amazing people are gone. These are not just statistics. These were individuals. These are human beings. They each have a story. They each had dreams, goals, talents, friends, family. They are you and they are me. And one night they went out to relax, to laugh, to connect, to forget, to remember. And in a few minutes of chaos and terror, they were gone.
I truly believe that this is the defining issue of our generation. Can we be brave? Can we be strong? Can we be kind and, perhaps, even happy, in the face of atrocious acts of hate and terrorism? Do we find a way to unite? Or do these atrocities further corrode and divide our torn nation? Can we…lead the nation with love in the face of adversity? Can WE become a greatest generation?
So, what can we do? We can pester our politicians, we can write letters, we can advocate for the oppressed, we can share our deep disappointment with the elected leaders of Lexington as their is a gun show happening right now at the convention center. And we can keep doing these things. And we can also remember.
We can remember the names of those who died because they just happened to be gay Americans at a nightclub one evening. During our Joys & Sorrows portion of the service, we often have a space to speak the names of those on our hearts into this room. And I know it is unusual to some, loved by some, and hated by some.
Heck, I’ve even heard some of you say, quite loudly in the silence, how much you dislike that portion of the service. The acoustics in this room are excellent. And while that particular practice may not be a fit for the culture of this space — people have gathered in churches for centuries to speak names of remembrance.
They speak these names whether or not they like the ritual itself, they speak the names not for themselves, they speak the names so that the gathered community can remember and know and pray and hope. So, right now, we will remember.
I commit to the memory of justice, hope, and our unyielding faith in the power of love in the face of evil, those 49 souls lost forever in Orlando, Florida on June 12th, 2016:
Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old
Amanda Alvear, 25 years old
Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26 years old
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33 years old
Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28 years old
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25 years old
Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old
Cory James Connell, 21 years old
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31 years old
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22 years old
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old
Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old
Frank Hernandez, 27 years old
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40 years old
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old
Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25 years old
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49 years old
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25 years old
Kimberly Morris, 37 years old
Akyra Monet Murray, 18 years old
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20 years old
Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25 years old
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old
Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27 years old
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35 years old
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old
Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24 years old
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old
Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24 years old
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37 years old
Luis S. Vielma, 22 years old
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50 years old
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31 years old
Sometimes in the face of such tragedies in the world, all we can do is light a candle. All we can do is let our hearts be broken and open up a way for gentle hope. Let this flame before us burn brightly. May it burn in our hearts, may it burn with righteous anger, grief, determination, solace, and yes, even a sliver of hope.
May this flame be for us a symbol of the 49 innocent lives taken from this world in Orlando, may their memories live on with us and all those who are remembering them this day — and there are many.
But so too, may it represent the life of the man who committed this atrocity — may his life remind us of the work we need to do in the world to dismantle hatred, speak truth to power, love beyond our beliefs, and never give up in our hopes. This small flickering flame stands for us a reminder of all those who have suffered at the hands of hatred.
All those who have been oppressed, downtrodden, and whose voices have not been heard. This flame is Orlando, and it is all of us, all who have ever lived, and all who are yet to live. It is fragile. It has an allotted time to burn. It will consume the candle. But we who tend this flame must be prepared to let it live on in our hearts. We will not forget. We will not give up. We will pay attention.