Before I even learned what had happened in Orlando, I learned about the candlelight vigil that would be held on my city’s courthouse lawn. I’d been to church that morning, but no one even mentioned what had happened at the Pulse nightclub.
The vigil was scheduled for half an hour from when I learned about it. I already had my evening planned out. I was going to practice my cello, drink some wine. Do some laundry. I felt compelled to attend the vigil but also rooted in the familiarity of my typical Sunday evening activities. I could pray and send positive energy from the privacy of my own home, I reasoned.
But something told me to go.
Maybe it’s because I was raised to believe that not standing up for something or failing to speak out against injustice is the same thing as consent. Or maybe it was the part of me that found my usual activities (e.g. attending church) to be unsatisfying. Maybe it was the part of me that craves new experiences and deeper understanding. Whatever it was, the little voice urging me to go could not be ignored. You are a person of faith, the voice said, You need to be there.
The news story I’d read about the Orlando shooting said there was blood everywhere. People were screaming in pain and fear. All I could think about was Jesus. He knew what it was to suffer abuse, to be despised. He was also brutally murdered for being who he was. I don’t know how to explain it but I felt very deeply that Jesus had suffered alongside the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
When I showed up for the vigil, only a handful of people were there. Most conspicuous were a couple of lady clerics with rainbow pins and a girl with blue hair and black lipstick. But as the sun began to set, the crowd grew. Dozens became fifty, and then one hundred.
Then I saw her.
A petite, kind-faced woman in glasses and hijab, walked with her husband among the mourners. Her husband made a point of going around and introducing them to the others. I thought it was a beautiful gesture, but also a brave one. While my city is relatively diverse and accepting for a small city in the south, it isn’t exactly brimming with Muslims. There are still plenty of good ol’ boys with rebel flags pasted onto the windows of their pickup trucks. I hoped nobody would be unkind.
I watched people shake her hand politely and go back to their conversations. The lady clerics actually looked away from her, then changed their minds and offered a smile.
“We are from the local mosque,” her husband explained. “We are here to grieve with you, and also to speak out against what has happened.”
I didn’t know there was a mosque in my city, and I told her as much.
She went on to explain that it was Ramadan right now, and that in a few minutes she and her husband would slip away to discreetly break their fast. They hadn’t had anything to eat or drink all day. When the time came to break the fast, she invited me to join her.
There’s always a part of me that wants not to impose, not to be awkward. But I also felt honored that she asked me. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I decided to acknowledge this gift for the simple kindness that it was, and joined her on the courthouse steps for some dates.
She told me about her country, Morocco. She told me about her husband. She told me about Ramadan. And, she talked about the tragedy in Orlando. “ISIS isn’t Islam,” she said sadly. “They hate Muslims. They have killed so many of us. And the things they do are in opposition to our scriptures. We don’t hate gay people. It is forbidden to spy on your neighbor. It is for each person to work out their private life with God.”
“People misuse Christianity in similar ways,” I told her. “Anyone who thinks he knows the mind of God is a fool.” She nodded and offered me another date. Some distance away, the vigil began. Flames were passed from candle to candle, illuminating the faces of those who’d assembled, now well over a hundred. I offered to let my new friend use my candle, a votive in a blue glass jar, so that she wouldn’t get wax on her clothes. She accepted, and we moved to join the group.
I thought I’d come to make some kind of a point, about who I was and what I stood for, but God had other ideas. I wasn’t there to send a message; I was there to receive one. I was there for the sermon I hadn’t gotten at church that morning.
A young man stood in the center of the group and said with a shaky voice, “When I first told my family I was gay, they rejected me. The club here became like a home. The people there looked after me and let me cry on their shoulders, they offered me advice, we laughed together. I just keep thinking that’s what Pulse must have been for so many people in Orlando. And it just reminds me how important we are to one another. Take care of one another. Be someone’s home, every day.”
Over the next hour, people took turns encouraging one another, sharing stories of fear and heartache and hope. The evening was breezy, and candles kept going out. But invariably, someone whose candle was still lit would re-light the extinguished candle of the person next to him. It happened time and time again.
It was a beautiful example of the best of what we can be: unified, present for one another. Bearing witness to one another’s experiences without judgment. Offering light to a neighbor whose candle has gone dark. Carrying within our hearts a home that is open to strangers.