Searching for Sanctuary after #Orlando
Like many Americans, I still am reeling from last Sunday’s shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. I am haunted by the death and destruction that separated 2 AM’s celebratory last call from 5 AM’s bloody wakeup call. Three hours. 180 minutes. Forty-nine individuals murdered, and more than 50 wounded.
Most of the men and women terrorized and killed were members of the LGBTQ community. Like juke joints and churches for African Americans or union halls for blue-collar workers, Pulse was a sanctuary for people who often feel unable to be entirely themselves in the wider world. It was a place of freedom and safety, a refuge. Until it wasn’t. On Sunday, the sanctuary was desecrated.
What in the hell can we do in the aftermath of such devastation?
Answers to that question abound. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded by messages and directives about what we should be doing, as individuals and as a nation. Some of the messages promote spiritual responses: “Pray.” Other messages encourage policy change: Enact stricter gun control measures—or, conversely, take action to guarantee that the “good guys” to have access to firearms. Still others are explicitly anchored to presidential politics: Donald Trump Tweet-rants that Barack Obama should resign, while Hillary Clinton argues that Republicans should “stand up to their presumptive nominee.”
In the midst of anguish spurred by (yet another!) incident of terrorism and gun violence, all of the calls to action are enough to make my head spin. Yet all these conversations about policy and political leaders and spiritual responses to violence are important, and they need to occur, for the sake of ourselves and our communities. When confronted by violence, we cannot remain silent; indeed, we must offer more than silence.
Still, even today, four days out from the horrific events in Orlando, I find myself wishing for some quiet. The lives of more than 100 people have been extinguished or inalterably changed—none of us is never the same after trauma, regardless of how well bodies may heal—and I crave mental space to process all that has occurred.
Oddly enough, as I watch television news specials about the Pulse victims and their grieving friends and family members, my maternal grandmother keeps coming to mind. She and my grandfather raised their family on a Midwestern dairy farm. Like most of their friends and relatives, they were bright, hardworking Lutherans—of the German, rather than the Scandinavian, variety (and yes, that did make a difference). Devoted to their church and their children, they attended worship services weekly and set aside money each month so that when the time came, they were able to send all three of their kids to the flagship state university.
Like many women and men who were born at the beginning of the 20th century and spent their entire lives in fairly homogeneous small farming communities, my intelligent, fun-loving grandmother led a simple life. She wasn’t a big traveler—neither she nor my grandfather ever made it to Europe, or Mexico, or some other exotic locale—and her favorite place to be was at home. She never asked for much, and she expressed nothing but appreciation for the blessings that she felt God had given her.
One day, when I was in my late twenties, I paid my 84-year-old grandmother a visit, with one explicit task in mind: the seasons had changed, and I needed to help Grandma switch over her closet. First, we were going to box up her winter clothing and prepare it ready for storage. Then we were going to remove her spring clothes from their under-bed boxes and hang them in the closet.
The task was simple enough. But in the middle of it, Grandma posed a question that threw me for a loop. As we discussed my sister and brother-in-law’s recent wedding, my grandmother asked, “Alyssa, are you ever going to settle down and get married?”
My heart jumped in my chest. Grandma knew I lived with another woman—she had even met Robyn—but I had never come out and told her the full nature of our relationship. I stuttered and stammered. “Well, Grandma, I don’t know. I think that Robyn and I are going to live together. She’s a really good person, and I like her a lot.” Grandma said, “Oh,” and then I switched topics as quickly as I could. Usually an introvert, I magically gained the superhero power of engaging in small talk.
After Grandma and I finished cleaning out her closet—it took about an hour in total—I left and drove back to the house of my aunt and uncle, who were hosting me during my Midwestern sojourn. I said nothing about that uncomfortable conversation with my grandmother, and I spent the entire night wondering whether Grandma had understood the true meaning of what I had told her.
The next day, I returned for another visit. I was flying back East that evening, and I wanted to have a chance to see my grandmother once more before I left. When I arrived, it was a gorgeous spring afternoon, and Grandma asked me to take her outside, so that we could sit together on the front porch of her assisted-living facility. We chatted for a while—she asked me how school was going, and whether I had plans for the summer—and then our conversational patter dwindled into silence.
That’s when Grandma began telling me a story. “Last summer, I was out on this porch with a bunch of my friends. We sat and watched hundreds of bicyclists stream by.” (In an odd twist of fate, the route of the now-defunct Minneapolis-to-Chicago AIDS Ride passed through my grandmother’s tiny town and right by her facility.)
“I was waving and cheering to all of the bikers, yelling, ‘Good going! You can do it,’ when one of my friends told me to stop.”
Grandma paused. “My friend didn’t usually talk to me like that. I asked her, ‘Why? They’re working hard, and I want to encourage them.’”
“And that’s when my friend said, ‘Don’t you know who they are? They’re participating in that AIDS Ride. They’re homosexuals and sinners. Why would you cheer them on?’”
My grandmother turned and looked me square in the eye. She asked, “Do you want to know how I answered, Alyssa?”
Fearing what would come out of her mouth next, I hesitantly answered, “Sure.”
The moment seemed an eternity. “I said to my friend, ‘Well why not? After all, they’re people too!’”
My eyes teared up. She had understood my undeclared declaration of the prior afternoon. She still loved me, and she wanted me to know it.
In these post-Orlando days, I crave silence. Silence to remember my beloved grandmother. And silence to grieve for the people who lost their lives at Pulse before they had the chance to experience their own “Well why not? After all, they’re people too!” moments of reckoning with siblings, and parents, and grandparents.
I know that all of the current conversations about prayer, and policy, and politics need to happen. But at this very moment, they repel me, because they tend to be loud, and raucous, and argumentative, when all I desire is calm. I eventually will be ready to move out of this grieving space and re-engage with the world. But I must admit that I’m not there yet.
In the meantime, I wonder: How can our churches provide space for people to collect their thoughts and shore up their strength? How can our faith communities provide people with room to just be in the midst of so much noise and action? Forty-nine of my—no, 49 of our—LGBTQ brothers and sisters were murdered last weekend. Hundreds—indeed, millions—more of us were terrorized and traumatized. So perhaps it is time to cease doing, at least for a moment, and simply focus upon being. Sadly, that’s a luxury that those we have lost no longer possess.
Maybe once we’ve had time to pause, to grieve, to simply absorb what happened in Orlando and what it means, we can begin to explore how our churches might offer sanctuary—true sanctuary that extends beyond a two-hour vigil or a post-crisis sermon—to members of the LGBTQ and Muslim communities (because Muslims, too, are suffering in the aftermath of Orlando’s horrific events). Maybe we can begin to focus upon providing safe front porches and compassionate supporters who recognize common humanity by cheering, “Keep going! You can make it! We love you, and we want you to live, because you’re a person, too!”
But for now, all I have the heart for is the deep, abiding silence where eventually, I have to hope, we will encounter the fortifying presence of God.