There’s something happening here,
What it is aint exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Tellin’ me I’ve got to beware …
I think it’s time we stop, Children, What’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s goin’ down …
Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills & Nash)
On June 12, 49 people were murdered at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida and 53 were injured and hospitalized, four critically. People of good conscience gathered and mourned with victims and families at vigils held across the country and around the world. We grieved for lives lost. We grieved another mass shooting, the largest in U.S. history.
Here in San Mateo, we joined in a interfaith vigil held at the Congregational Church. We joined in sadness, shock and solidarity, both for Orlando, and for those in our own community, our country, our world who are of a minority sexual orientation: gay men, lesbians, bisexual persons, transgender persons, persons uncertain of their gender identity or sexual orientation, victims of senseless hate in some quarters.
The community we must hold vigil for in our hearts is even larger. It includes all our Muslim brothers and sisters here and around the world who have and will suffer from the kind of religious bigotry that cannot separate the actions of one radically disturbed individual from the peace- loving behaviors of millions of religious people.
Recently, Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo (UUSM) joined over 200 people and broke the month long period of daily fasting for Muslims known as Ramadan. The event, which I had never participated in before, was made even more remarkable to me because of its location. It was not held in a Mosque or even a Muslim Cultural Center, rather, it was hosted, and well attended, by the Jewish congregation of Peninsula Temple Shalom, in Burlingame. Muslims and Jews, Christians, UUs and others came together to learn more about this most holy ritual of Islam, and to stand against the violence of Islamaphobia and hate, which currently, the majority of U.S. citizens embrace and promote.
We hold vigil for people, especially black and brown people, who continue to be the targets of racial profiling and the oppression and violence that comes with it. Acts of systemic hatred and violence which we can not even imagine but which they face every day just because of the color of their skin.
Here, in this religious community, we are striving to embody and live out a life-long vigilance to building the beloved community that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of when he encouraged all people of good conscience, especially white people of privilege and power, to look at and dismantle the pervasiveness of white supremacy, lessons learned at a tender age and never truly unlearned without a committed effort and willingness to change and be changed—from the inside-out.
Our Black Lives Matter banner hangs outside our sanctuary, a reminder to be conscious of our complicity in the legacy of violence and hatred that is not yet overcome. We must hold in our hearts and move in our hands ALL of us here in our country who might at any time be the victims of violence of the highest order, violence inflicted by high-powered weapons that kill indiscriminately in every corner of this country: in our churches, mosques, temples and shrines…in our schools and workplaces, in our coffee houses and dance houses and our very homes.
Since the Orlando shooting on June 12th there have been 31 other mass shootings in the U.S. involving 4 or more victims, including the death of 5 in Las Vegas and 5 police officers in Dallas, Texas. More shootings. More vigils. So, what exactly do we mean by vigil?
A vigil is a SACRED kind of watchfulness, a call to be attentive and aware with devotion for the emotions that are sure to surge up within us— emotions of anger, even rage; emotions surrounding loss and shock; emotions steeped in frustration and fear. These emotions can convince us, if we are not careful, that rage justifies the kind of outrage that lashes out, repaying violence with violence, seeking a life for a life, an eye for an eye, the kind of rage that would turn the whole world into an unending whirl of violence and vengeance.
Inevitably,we must come to the question: “What WILL we do?” Because, now awakened, now alert, now vigilant…We know we are called to respond, to act, to engage in change that makes a difference.
Our first question is, “What do we need to make sure we do not do?” How do we honor the memory of those who were victimized by hate? How do we stand with those who are still victimized by hate? How do we keep from falling into the pattern of hate ourselves? Given the size and complexity of the problem, how do we remain vigilant and not acquiesce back into silence, numbness, complacency? How do we do more than pray?
We know that a culture that marginalizes and stigmatizes persons for any reason creates an environment that says violence towards those persons is acceptable because they are the “other,” that are not like us. But we who believe in a better way know that an eye for an eye only leaves us all blind.
We also know that a culture of violence such as ours also creates an environment of numbness and distance and silent complicity, which can be and has been part of what perpetuates the continuance of the dominant culture. We have now heard enough shots to know that silence is inadequate to the task of countering the culture violence. We must employ the power of love and peaceful engagement for we know that moments of silence and prayer are no longer enough. That they have never been enough…
Congresswoman Jackie Speier, our District 14 representative who, out of frustration to the impotence of her Congressional colleagues and out of vigilance and commitment to bringing real change to the culture of gun violence in our country, no longer participates in the moments of silence that have become the only response of our congress to these ceaseless mass shootings that are a plague upon our nation.
This is what our moments of silence have bought us. A silent nightclub, the only sound the frantic ringing of phones that would never be answered. Silent bodies, where there should be life and love and pride. And here, a silent Congress. Mere words cannot describe the depth of my grief and rage. Forty-nine lives lost, in the middle of Pride Month when they should have been safe and celebrated. Forty-nine families devastated by the loss of their loved ones. Forty-nine phones ringing, and ringing, and ringing. There were also frantic texts, like Eddie Justice’s final messages to his mother: “Mommy, I love you. He’s coming. I’m going to die.
“If you can hear these words without your heart breaking, if you can think of those little children gunned down in Newtown without grieving, if you can think of empty pews in Charleston without mourning, then truly you have lost your humanity.
“Hateful people like to compare LGBTQ equality to the sin-filled Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. But we in Congress are the real Sodom and Gomorrah. Are there 218 righteous members here to stand against this bloody tide? Increasingly, I doubt it.
“So I ask you today, how many lives must be destroyed before Congress acts?
Nine lives? Charleston showed us nine is not enough.
Thirteen lives? Columbine showed us that 13 is not enough.
Certainly 27 small children killed in their classrooms at Newtown? No.
The 32 lives lost at Virginia Tech? Again, not enough lives.
The more than 33,000 Americans killed each year by guns? Still not enough.
“And now 49 people have been murdered in Orlando.
“Yet even this historic tragedy hasn’t been deemed big enough, horrific enough, or insidious enough to break Congress’ silence.
“Congress is happy to debate for hours about bathrooms, but bring up the gun violence killing thousands? Absolutely not.
“Radical Islam, or home-grown American homophobia, or a toxic stew of both may have inspired the Orlando shooter. No doubt we will learn more about his disgusting motivations in the coming weeks.
“But there are simple actions we can take now, actions that would have reduced the deaths in Orlando as well as Aurora, Newtown, San Bernardino, and at Umpqua Community College…
“I urge you – I beg you – to make America better than this. We must be better than this. “ –Congresswoman Jackie Speier, California’s 14th District.
There exists among us a variety of responses to the NRA, more interested in the rights of those who sell guns than in the lives of innocent victims of gun violence. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ-rights organization in the country suggests that we work to limit access to all assault weapons: That we move to expand background checks: that we limit access to firearms for suspected terrorists and for people with a history of domestic abuse. Common sense. Yes! In every other “civilized” country in the world, these are understood as common-sense regulations. But, here in our country, while the NRA owns the people’s Congress, these are seen as unreasonable restrictions. This has to stop. We must rise and turn the tide towards peace and justice when it comes to public safety. The best way to honor those who were senselessly slaughtered in Orlando and everywhere else is to act, NOW. We may BEGIN with prayers and with songs and with vigils…but let’s not stop there.
We can do better. We are better than this.
May it be so.
– Rev. Ben Meyers
Essay posted under CC NoDerivatives (nd) license. You may copy, distribute, display only original copies of this work with attribution; © portrait, Ben Meyers; Jackie Spear’s portrait is her official one; UUSM photograph is in the public domain; Temple Sholom courtesy of PTseducation under CC SA-BY 3.0, other photographs, Jamie Dedes