It happened as we slept. We woke up in a daze, in disbelief, and watched helplessly as the death toll climbed from 9 to 20 to 50. We spent the morning absorbing the news, praying together, feeling sad.
The next day, we got that horrible phone call. My husband picked it up and just said “No. Oh no. Oh my God.” Jake’s friend and coworker, Antonio, was among the dead. The call came from my sister Katie, who also works at the store and had said goodbye to him as he left his shift the night before.
Jake fluctuated between sadness, silence, and disbelief. He mentioned how surreal it was that he was killed- not by a disease or a sickness, but gunned down in a place that should have been safe. This was national news- the deadliest mass shooting in modern America History- and it was all unfolding in our backyard, effecting us and the people we knew.
It was all so surreal. I felt heartbroken and helpless. I tried to sleep but it crept into my dreams. On social media, some people were using this violent, hate fueled tragedy to further their own agenda. A few were even trying to arouse hatred and fear of our Muslim neighbors- to further divide and marginalize people in the midst of this horror.
It was exhausting .
I found comfort, hope, and strength where most of us did: in the long lines at the blood banks, the outpouring of encouragement and love from the community, and a willingness to serve which seemed to pour in from all corners of the city.
At the Vigil, my friend Leena and I stood on the lawn by City Hall surrounded by thousands of our Orlando neighbors. We listened as Pastors and Community Leaders spoke words of encouragement and hope into the darkness we were experiencing.
“God is love.”
“You are loved by God, whether you are gay, straight, trans, queer, lesbian, or bi.”
“Love will conquer hate- every time.”
It felt like an act of resistance to stand together and to speak those words- to believe them. We held up lit candles in silence as the church bells rang out- 50 times. Hot wax dripped past our fingers and tears fell from our eyes.
For a moment, we were able to cut past all the politics and social media storms by standing in one another’s physical presence, breathing the same air and standing on the same soil. Strangers embraced like brothers and sisters, weeping and comforting each other. A Sikh woman passing out water and food saw me crying, and stopped what she was doing to embrace and kiss me.
It was healing, it was good.
But we still have so far to go.
This is a defining moment in history. Right now, the LGBT community is mourning a horrific act of violence. Many people are hurting, and many people are feeling vulnerable. This act of hatred and violence came within the context of an already marginalized group of people.
If there is any moment to be the church, this is it. This is not a time to be silent. This is a moment to surround, to embrace, to serve, to listen, to lift up, to mourn, to be humble.
It is my hope that as Christians, we would take this opportunity to develop a fuller, more genuine compassion for all LGBT people. I believe that by doing so, we are following in the footsteps of our radically inclusive Jesus, whose life was defined by his love for society’s most marginalized people groups.
I don’t think anyone will disagree when I say that the church has had a tragically bad track record of inflicting hurt rather than healing on the LGBT community. While there are certainly many within the church who have long affirmed and served LGBT people, the overwhelming message many gay people have received from the church has not been one of genuine love, but one of caution, fear, correction, and rejection.
Often, rhetorical “love” which is offered by Christians comes qualified with condemnation and disapproval.
It is important that the church be humble and realistic about the ways hateful rhetoric and exclusionary attitudes within our circles have contributed to a culture in which LGBT people feel shame, fear, and exclusion.
This is hard. But so important.
We must remember that our culture wars come at a cost. Since the debates over the Bathroom Bills caught fire, calls to suicide hotlines for trans people nearly doubled. LGBT groups- teenagers in particular- already have the highest suicide rate of any group in the country. The Washington Post reports that the suicide attempt rate among transgender youth at 57 percent. Children, who made in the image of God and deeply loved by him, are internalizing shame, guilt, and self hate to the point that they are killing themselves. This fact is statistically linked to exclusionary crusades waged from behind a keyboard.
This violence and these deaths should be in our minds as we mourn the violence and death which took place on Sunday.
In a post I wrote about a month ago, I said this:“In our limited understanding of complex issues, it is my prayer that the Evangelical Church would err on the side of graciousness rather than judgement; inclusion rather than exclusion, and empathy rather than condemnation.”
I still believe that. I am still trying to remain humble and open to how I can best be a reflection of God’s love to my neighbors. And I am still learning.
I am learning that it is almost always more important to mourn with those who mourn than debate someone you think is wrong.
I am learning to listen to the voices of LGBTQ people rather than assuming I know what they think, feel, and need.
I am learning that love which must be qualified with moral correction hardly ever feels like love.
I am learning that it is not always my job to be the mouth piece of God to gay people- that often, it is gay people who show the ministering love of God to me.
I am learning that nearly 50 percent of the nations LGBT population identify as Christian. These people are more than an issue to debate- they are my brothers and sisters.
I am still learning to remain hopeful in the powerful, healing grace of our God, which is not too small to include all the people he has made.