At 2am on Sunday over 100 people were killed or wounded in the deadliest shooting in our nation’s history–an attack specifically targeting members of the LGBTQI+ community in a gay bar in Orlando. You already know this. But I didn’t. I had a vague sense from the trending hashtags that something had happened in Orlando, but between back-to-back meetings for Annual Conference and the preparations for Sunday morning’s service immediately following it, I didn’t hear any details until after church this week. I know this was the case for many of my fellow clergy, at least in the Mississippi United Methodist Church, and the reason for our silence on the tragedy in many cases. While the timing matters, though, I don’t know that I can say in good conscience that distractions and missed headlines are the only reason many of us didn’t speak up. Fear has a good bit to do with it, too. Fear of being too political, using the wrong acronym, making things worse, stirring up potentially touchy church members who may already be pissed enough about something else we’ve done lately. These fears are real and valid, but I can’t say that they matter nearly so much to me as those texted by a beloved friend:
“I woke up to the news about the shooting and didn’t feel safe in my own home. I was out at a gay bar last night here and there was nothing stopping that massacre happening here. I went to church and right before the service started, the body count had more than doubled and why should I feel safe in a church anymore? And people wanna offer their prayers? And do nothing else? How useless.”
Do you hear their heart breaking? Do you hear that this beloved child of God lifted their eyes from a phone screen plastered with this news to the communion table we say Christ has opened to all, but that morning God’s people offered this person no substantive comfort from the pulpit or the pews outside of a perfunctory nod to Orlando during prayer requests. I was struck by the stark contrast between this experience and that of watching James Corden’s opening remarks at the Tony Awards on TV later that night.
“All we can say is you are not on your own right now. Your tragedy is our tragedy. Theater is a place where every race, creed, sexuality and gender is equal, embraced and loved. Hate will never win. Together, we have to make sure of that.”
How beautiful! Another presenter applauded the crowd gathered there for their loving spirit, calling it “a room full of the most generous people in the world.” Others celebrated that the theater represents a “community that is kind, generous, and diverse.” Praise God that they have created such a safe space! But can you imagine friends in LGBTQI+ communities saying the same about the church? When Sunday evening’s Tony Awards offer more comfort than Sunday morning’s church services, we have a problem. Why is it that a late night talk show host feels more free to express love and speak such healing words over our communities than ministers of the Gospel? Regardless of where people of faith fall on questions of sexuality and marriage and sexual ethics, I cannot believe for a second that God has intended that we should feel we cannot condemn such gut-wrenching tragedy and offer God’s comfort to our siblings for fear of backlash from the Church. I cannot imagine that God is okay with us belting out hymns in the sanctuary as we shove those who sing a different harmony into the closet. The words of Amos 5:23-24 come to mind:
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
That feels harsh, I know. But a wake-up call is supposed to be a little jarring to stir us out of complacent slumber. What if we were to imagine silencing our songs and prayers for one another, cutting out that option which does express true heartfelt sympathy but which requires very little inconvenience or follow-up. Without the option of prayer, we’d have to do something concrete. We’d have to show up. We’d have to give. We’d have to answer to James: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
Please don’t stop singing and don’t stop praying friends. I hear the love behind a desire to do something, anything–to pray in groans too deep for words when there just are no words. I see the light of Christ shining in those of us who don’t know what else to do but “give it to God” in prayer. But as C.S. Lewis and countless others have told us, we need prayer not because it changes God, but because it changes us. Prayer is meant to move us to action, transforming us more and more into Christ-like love for one another in tangible, practical ways. Our prayers are useless if not connected to our actions, our calendars, and our bank accounts. Where we spend our time, energy, money, and influence matters. Our prayers without action lack integrity. How can I rightfully call for peace I do not work for? How can I mourn the death of people whose spirits I have wounded, directly or indirectly, in life? It’s not that my friend is ungrateful for your prayers or that they don’t believe God works through prayer. As I understand it, my friend believes in the power of prayer. They are simply asking if we do, too. It’s not a one-way street, you know. Often we view prayer as “Please God…” and glory be, God listens as a patient parent to every desire of our hearts. But prayer is a dialogue, and perhaps it’s time we started listening for a change. God is speaking to us through all these prayers that have been lifted together, and the time has come to lift our hands and voices, too.
In my days at the North Carolina Justice Center, advocates on a variety of issues told me something their mentors had told them in the wake of tragedies and losses and just general crappiness in the world: Don’t mourn, organize. All due respect, but I can’t help the mourning. Still, I am mourning and praying on my feet. I’m trusting that God will show me the road as I stumble along behind brothers and sisters who are already on the way.
Here are a few of the ways we have been invited to help those impacted by the Orlando shooting specifically and to create a safer world for all LGBTQI+ people more generally.
- Donate blood. While this is particularly important for those in and around Orlando, it is a helpful show of solidarity for any of us that benefits those in need in our local communities. You can find donation sites here and here. This is an especially meaningful way for straight allies to contribute because currently gay and bi-sexual men are prohibited from donating blood by law. Speaking of which, we should change that. See number 4.
- Donate financially to funds assisting with victims’ medical and funeral costs. These groups have been vetted for authenticity and are supported by Equality Florida and Planting Peace.
- Contact your local LGBT Center, Human Rights Campaign, or other community groups to build relationships and learn about life as an LGBTQI+ American. Many of these organizations have faith community outreach programs and staff who would be thrilled to sit down and talk with you or your Sunday school class, Bible study, etc. Please take the time to do this even–perhaps especially–if you are still not sure how you feel about all this sexuality stuff. There’s no question God calls us to break bread and share in conversation with neighbors who are different from us. A relationship isn’t automatically an endorsement, but it is a sign of God’s love.
- Pay attention to political news impacting LBGTQI+ communities and speak up to praise policies that are life-giving or oppose policies that are harmful. Petitions, letters and phone calls to legislators, attendance at rallies, and of course, voting are all simple ways to make an impact.
- Choose your words wisely to convey love even (again, especially) in disagreement. Derogatory language, hate speech, and stereotypes are dangerous, even when they are only in the context of jokes with friends. For one thing, you are likely to inadvertently hurt people you care about as you never know who among you may identify as LGBTQI+ or have a dear friend or family member who does. Regardless, though, this kind of talk forms attitudes that make it seem normal or even funny to dehumanize people based on their gender or sexuality, which is how we end up with deeply entrenched discriminatory laws and practices.