The Canadian vocal group Moxie Fruvous has a song which begins:
We got a call to write a song about the war in the Gulf,
But we shouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.
So we tried, and gave up, cuz there was no such song,
But the trying was very revealing
As I was preparing to lead our congregation in worshiping God last Sunday morning, I read a headline that said “20 Killed in Orlando Club Shooting.” By the time the worship service was over, someone told me the number of dead had risen to 50. I soon learned other parts of the tragedy, facts which pile up and overwhelm me, so I just don’t know what to think or say:
- Pulse was a gay night club, so this was, in part, an attack on LGBTQ people;
- Pulse was particularly patronized by Latino/as, so this was, in part, an attack on Latino/as people;
- The murderer, Omar Mateen, was a Muslim from New York, born to Afghan immigrant parents, and seems to have been “radicalized” by militant Islamic terrorist propaganda on the internet;
- Mateen was a “home-grown terrorist” who claimed to be protesting, in part, U.S. bombings in Syria and Iraq, so this was an attack on America;
- Mateen was twice investigated by the FBI for terrorist connections, but none could be substantiated at the time;
- Mateen was seen by some co-workers as bigoted, hateful and violent. One co-worker said, “I saw it coming. I mean everything,” he said. “He said he was going to kill a whole bunch of people”;
- Mateen’s ex-wife says he was “bi-polar,” but he was apparently not being treated for any mental health issue;
- In the week before the massacre, Mateen legally bought the guns and ammunition he used, including an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle – the same weapon used in the San Bernardino killings last year, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012 (along with several other mass killings in the last few years).
I simply don’t know what to say about all this – especially not as a pastor who “shouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.” An act of such extreme hatred and evil makes me want to rage against so many things, but really? Am I going to respond to hatred and evil with rage? Against Muslims? Against homophobic people? Against the NRA? Against our society which fails to invest in battling mental illness?
The truth is that I am angry and sad for so many reasons. But the thing that bothers me most about this is that I am feeling somewhat hopeless. And hopeless is not like me. I think I didn’t understand hopelessness until I was about 40, when I volunteered as a chaplain at a juvenile detention center. I had deep and personal and spiritual conversations with 14, 15, 16 year olds, almost none of who expected to live past age 21, and if they did live, it would be in prison. In their minds, and worse, in their hearts, there simply was no path into the future that ended with them alive, and happy, and free of the various types of trauma that silently shaped them. That’s hopelessness.
That’s how I feel right now. Given the state of the world, and the politics of our country, and the nature of the human heart, what path is there to a time when this type of horror is no more? I don’t see it. For me, this is like “Holy Saturday,” the Saturday after Jesus’ execution. Jesus was DEAD, and the disciples were defeated, confused, and afraid. What path is there to a time when this type of horror is no more?
I also feel like some who has suffered a great loss and just wants to get back into their garden to work off the grief. My garden in this case is the social witness of our congregation, especially what we do through DuPage United:
- The reality of prejudice against LGBT people is clearly part of this Orlando tragedy. We are already at work on this issue. Through our welcome statement and in our actions, our congregation supports gay and lesbian people, and we are committed to showing God’s love for ALL people.
- The reality of militant Islamic terrorism and the resulting fear of Muslims in this country is clearly part of this Orlando tragedy. We are already at work on this issue. Through DuPage United we are actively involved in a Muslim solidarity campaign, showing support for the vast majority of Muslims in this country who passionately reject violence.
- The reality of mental illness (either officially diagnosed or not) is clearly part of this Orlando tragedy. We are already at work on this issue. Through DuPage United we are working to end the stigma around mental health issues and improve treatment options for mentally ill people.
- The reality of violence committed with guns is clearly part of this Orlando tragedy. We are already at work on this issue. Through the wider network of groups affiliated with DuPage United, we are working to reduce gun violence, not through gun control, but through comprehensive gun safety measures.
I don’t know how long my sense of hopelessness will last, but until then, I am going to keep working in this garden with others from our congregation (and many other congregations and groups) and maybe find some life there. Someday, I hope soon, this extended “Holy Saturday” will end, hope will be born anew, and then my work in the garden will transform again from an expression of grief to an expression of joy, and hope.
May the peace of Christ be with us all.
Reverend J Michael Solberg
The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C.