The evening after the mass murders in Orlando, a friend of mine mentioned on Facebook that she planned to attend a vigil at a local church. That brief, innocuous post unleashed one of the nastiest comments I’ve ever seen between “friends.” The post is no longer up, but it used profanity to curse the vigil, churches and ministers and “stupid praying.”
My friend responded calmly, and in the course of this online dialogue her “friend” (turns out she didn’t actually know him) ranted against what he perceived to be the delusion and futility of a faith-based gathering. What good does it do to join hands and sing kum ba yah? We’re in real danger, don’t you see? We need to do something real.
The vigil in question was held at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. I was there along with several hundred people, a diverse crowd by faith, race, ethnicity and age. The service was organized by Pullen’s minister Rev. Nancy Petty, who knew immediately this service would be for the broader community. As a church long known as an all-too rare religious haven for LGBT people and a champion of social justice, Pullen would offer a space where anyone could come to mourn and pray in community.
Still, many who attended might have been surprised to find the speakers included a rabbi and an imam – especially the imam. If you believe all Muslims are alike, this seems awkward since the Orlando attacker calls himself an adherent of Islam, ISIS (and, apparently, Hezbollah). And most of his victims were in the LGBT community –not a group historically favored by Muslims.
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Yet only hours after the attack, Rev. Petty began receiving calls from local Muslim leaders who were sickened and horrified “in every fiber of their being.” They asked how they could help. They wanted to stand with the entire community in mourning.
The interfaith vigil that resulted included songs, prayers and messages of grief and messages of hope. No doubt my friend’s online troll would have sneered at the choice of songs by soloists (beautiful versions of “What’s Going On” and “Imagine”) and the Triangle Gay Men’s Chorus. He might have rolled his eyes at the words delivered by Rabbi Larry Bach and Imam Abdullah Antepli. Maybe he would have seen the naming of the victims, one by one, as a waste of breath and candles.
But among those there, something happened – something invisible and hard to describe, but very real. By coming together, I believe we took a step to avoid some of the greatest risks we’re facing. Without this kind of community gathering, we risk isolation, where our own fears and suspicions can fester and grow. We risk falling into the delusional thinking that piling on more violence will make things better. We risk the blindness that comes when we fail to witness each other’s anger, fear and grief. There’s a danger of never-ending divisions when we refuse to look each other in the eye even when we disagree.
Do we need more practical actions to stop mass shootings and crimes of hate? Absolutely. Let’s consider the possibility that talking to each other and finding common ground might be a necessary first step.
Mary Lambeth Moore of Raleigh is a writer and a long-time member of Pullen.