For me it became real when a former parishioner texted me. He told me that he knew one of the victims. Brenda McCool lived in Barstow for a time. She was in the club with her son, dancing. She was there with him to celebrate him, to support him, to make sure he knew that he was loved. She died to save his life in that place they entered that night to celebrate who he was.
The irony of that is what makes this tragedy so poignant and even more difficult, isn’t it? Before we were welcome in places like this, we were welcome there. They were our sanctuary. For me, walking in the vigil in Hillcrest Monday, I was aware of my own coming out as a gay man, of how I came to realize how I belonged in the bars and the clubs. And isn’t that the essence of what baptism is– coming to know we are loved for who we were made to be and becoming a part of a community? But for so many of us who are past a certain age, it just wasn’t safe for us to be baptized with that inward and spiritual grace of love and belonging within the walls of the Church. We were baptized with that grace in the gay ghetto. Places like Hillcrest. Places like Pulse. They are the sanctuaries where, as one author put it, “we finally realize that we are not alone in this world.” (1) They are places of love, and places of belonging. They are places where I can imagine Jesus hanging out, actually, rejecting the formal institutions of his day for places where the rubber meets the road on testing the limits of acceptance and inclusion.
The loss of 50 human lives would make us grieve no matter what the circumstances. As I stood outside Rich’s Monday night, looking at the bar that might not be so very different from Pulse, it was striking to consider that those 49 people inside a place like that on Latino night were there to be completely accepted, and belong, and just exist without judgement, and were cut down in the midst of of it. Young people, mostly. Finding themselves, being free, and killed in the prime of their lives because of it. There aren’t enough tears in the world to express the tragedy of that.
At least for me, I don’t want a God who sits idly by in all this tragedy. The 23rd Psalm asks for protection in the valley of the shadow of death. And Psalm 121 claims assurance of God’s protection. But those who knew Brenda McCool and each of those other 49 people, and maybe you too, must not feel very assured. This has to be a mistake, dear God! Why could this happen? This isn’t how it is supposed to be!
Of course there isn’t any answer to that which satisfies. But there are a few things that may be worth remembering if we look back on the suffering and tragedies of others through the ages.
When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, he wept, was distraught, and anguished. But the story didn’t end there, did it?
The Israelites groaned under the weight of Pharaoh, broken and waiting for release from their captivity. But God heard their cries and empowered them to change their situation – God played a part, and the Israelites did too, cooperating by agreeing to participate in their own liberation, even when it made them uncomfortable, even when they wanted to go back to Egypt.
When they were captured by Babylon, without home and without a place to belong, they sat by the rivers and wept. The Lord God heard their cries, and in solidarity with them emboldened them to restore their homeland. Prophet after prophet came to challenge them to build a more inclusive homeland, to work harder, to make more room for the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan. It wasn’t just prayer– it was hard work in response to that prayer and faith. God and God’s people worked together for justice and peace.
It was St. Augustine of Hippo who said, “Without God, we cannot, and without us, God won’t.” More recently, I heard Sr. Simone Cambell, of “nun on a bus” fame, say, “you can’t get the laundry clean without an agitator in the washing machine.” And we can’t allow our laundry to stay dirty.
God’s story didn’t stop with the Biblical account. It was almost 47 years ago that something happened, also in a bar, one not unlike Pulse. On June 28, 1969, nobody knew what to expect. A bunch of drag queens and other queer folks gathered at the Stonewall Inn as they normally did. Things were different then, and they expected to be raided by the police every now and then and to suffer a little bit as a consequence of the freedom of being able to catch a few moments of belonging.
But that night– that night would be different. When the police showed up to raid the bar, the drag queens didn’t back down. They wanted a safe place to belong without infringement. And the next night, the protests got bigger. And as a result, the gay rights movement was born. And here we are, 47 years later. 47 years of hard work for love and inclusion for the outcast, for those who have nowhere to belong. And you know what? Things have changed. We can get married!
And now, right here, in Hillcrest the police who were once a threat to our community are patrolling the streets in our gay district– and they aren’t looking to raid our LGBTQ+ businesses, but they are there specifically to protect us from harm, doing a great job. Many of them are openly LGBTQ+. God is in the bars and clubs where belonging and love and baptism happens. We can now participate in every sacrament of this Church, thanks be to God! Things change if we are willing to make it so. Without God, we can’t. Without us, God won’t.
What change are we called to make now with God’s help? 47 years from now, how do we want to look back on this tragic moment? Nothing will erase the pain. But will we also look back and see it as the impetus that channeled us into action, ensuring that love and belonging would win and make sure it never happens again? We pray to ensure we are working for the kind of change God will get behind. Is God behind change using guns or change to diminish the role of violence of all kinds? Change that seeks to divide Muslim against Christian or change that unites us as one human family? Change that builds walls between our Latino neighbors who are also children of God, or change that builds on our relationships across this great big world?
Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not. Our laundry is dirty, and we need an agitator to spread the love around! Because everybody belongs in the family of God. And if everybody belongs, there is no place for violence anywhere.
I close with my favorite story about belonging, because that is the whole point. Lives were destroyed in Orlando for it. It is worth remembering what we are working for. It’s really much bigger than LGBTQ+ people. It’s bigger even than ethnicity or gender or religion, although all those things are part of it of course. It’s really about the dream of God, where we acknowledge the dignity of every human being by their very creation, and cherish each one of us– in all our differences– in all our sameness– in all our wonderful humanity. Here is that story.
Giants, wizards and dwarfs was the game to play.
Being left in charge of about eighty children seven to ten years old, while their parents were off doing parenty things, I mustered my troops in the church social hall and explained the game. It’s a large-scale version of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and involves some intellectual decision-making. But the real purpose of the game is to make a lot of noise and run around chasing people until nobody knows which side you are on or who won.
Organizing a roomful of wired-up gradeschoolers into two teams, explaining the rudiments of the game, achieving consensus or group identity– this all is no mean accomplishment, but we did it with a right good will and were ready to go.
The excitement of the chase had reached a critical mass. I yelled out, “You have to decide now which you are–a GIANT, a WIZARD, or a DWARF!”
While groups huddled in frenzied, whispered consultation, a tug came at my pants leg. A small child stands there looking up, and asks in a small, concerned voice, “Where do the Mermaids stand?”
Where do the Mermaids stand?
A long pause. A very long pause. “Where do the Mermaids stand?” says I.
“Yes. You see, I am a Mermaid.”
“There are no Mermaids.”
“Oh, yes, I am one!”
She did not relate to being a Giant, a Wizard, or a Dwarf. She knew her category.
Mermaid. And she was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall where a loser would stand. She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things. Without giving up dignity or identity. She took it for granted there was a place for Mermaids and that I would know just where.
Well, where DO the Mermaids stand? All the “Mermaids”– all those who are different, who do not fit the norm and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes?
Answer that question and you can build a school, a nation, or a world on it.
What was my answer at the moment? Every once in awhile I say the right thing.
“The Mermaids stand right here, by the King of the Sea!” says I. (Yes, right here by the King’s Fool, I thought to myself.)
So we stood there hand in hand, reviewing the troops of Wizards and Giants and Dwarfs as they roiled by in wild disarray.
It is not true, by the way, that mermaids do not exist. I know at least one personally. I have held her hand.”(2)
Now all you Wizards, and Dwarves, and Giants, and Mermaids– let’s continue to pray. And then let’s go and build the world God wants us to have, with God’s help.
The Rev. Jeff Martinhauk
Prayers for Pulse, June 15, 2016
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
See video here.
(2) From All I Really Needed to Know I Learned In Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum, Villard Books, New York, 1988, pp.83-85