Of Orlando and the Virtue of Embrace

Early yesterday morning, a twenty-nine-year-old man, full of hatred and armed to the teeth, walked into the Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida, and proceeded to murder fifty people and wound scores more.  It is the most devastating mass shooting in American history.  It specifically targeted the LGBT community.

In April of 1999, when two young men entered Columbine High School and began their massacre, I was twenty-five years old.  I was young enough to remember vividly the experience of being in high school: in the library working on some project, in the cafeteria with friends.  The familiarity of those spaces and my ability to imagine myself as a student at Columbine High School rendered that shooting intimately personal for me.  It was a long time before I was able to think of Columbine without being overcome by emotion.

My life-long friends Elizabeth Bridges and Audra Hamilton, one gay and the other not, have both written with eloquence and passion in the past several hours about the way in which gay bars and night clubs are, for the LGBT community, places of sanctuary.  In a Facebook post, Audra, who is not gay, speaks poignantly of the way in which she has always felt comfortable with friends in gay night clubs.  She muses why this is so, and offers this: “I suspect it was…because the people who were there had fought so hard to create a place of acceptance for themselves…and I was a beneficiary of that space and that love. I felt free to be myself, because they did. And they welcomed me.”

Orlando shooting

The complex role of gay bars and night clubs in LGBT culture is news to me; I had been unaware.  Though I minister to many gay and lesbian Christians, and though I am blessed to have gay and lesbian members in my family, I am unfamiliar with much of gay culture.  And so, unlike Columbine, which resonated with familiar images and thus hit me viscerally, I am only just beginning to grasp the wound to the soul of the LGBT community caused by yesterday’s massacre in Orlando, which may be more devastating even than the death toll.

This is, I believe, part of our collective challenge. We in the United States have striven to become a tolerant society.  But mere tolerance doesn’t breed familiarity, and without familiarity there is little chance for understanding.  Tolerance is a passive virtue.  It says, in essence, “I can abide your presence in proximity to me, but I do not want to know you.”

I have plumbed the depths of the Gospels, and nowhere do I find Jesus exhibiting tolerance.  Rather, Jesus embraces.  Embrace is an active virtue, the preeminent Gospel virtue.  Again and again, Jesus embraces the one who is outcast, who exists on the margins, who is maligned.  Through his embrace, which comes in the forms both of physical contact and words of acceptance, Jesus declares that, in God, there are no outcasts, there are no margins, and woe be it to anyone who maligns any one of God’s blessed and beloved children.

Jesus healing blind man

With God’s help, Christ Church Cathedral, where I have the privilege to serve as dean, strives to be a Christian community of embrace.  The Cathedral is, by definition, a sanctuary, and into its precincts are welcomed any and all who seek to know the God who is love.  Indeed, just a day before the terror attack in Orlando, the Justice & Peace Council of Christ Church hosted its fourth annual “Coming Out in Church” forum, an event which creates a safe space for LGBT Christians to express their faith and for the Church to embrace them in the fullness of, and not despite, their sexual orientation.  I was honored to be on the panel for this year’s forum.

Coming Out in Church, 2016

Coming Out in Church Panel

Who needs the embrace of Christ’s whole church this morning?  Surely, the Orlando community writ large, who are reeling from yesterday’s disaster and will be for a long time.  Surely, the LGBT community, who have been made to feel, as I felt after Columbine all those years ago, acutely vulnerable.  And surely the mainstream Muslim community in this country, who must contend now not only with age-old mistrust between Christians and Muslims (and vice versa), but also with the radicalized element within Islam whose very goal is to pit the rest of us against all our Muslim neighbors, the overwhelming majority of whom desire God’s peace just as I do.

Across social media, the question has been asked in the past twenty-four hours, by people across the social, ideological, and political spectra: “With whom do you stand?”

God willing, now as always, I stand with Jesus, because I believe Jesus is God Incarnate.  And in this instance, I have no doubt where Jesus stands.  Jesus stands in embrace of all of God’s children who are afraid, who are suffering, and who wonder what today will bring.  With Jesus supporting my faltering knees, I stand in embrace of my LGBT brothers and sisters.  I stand in embrace of all people of good will, and of any faith, who seek to know the God of love and also seek God’s peace.  Whatever today brings, we will face it together.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you and those you love, this day and always.  Amen.

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8 thoughts on “Of Orlando and the Virtue of Embrace

  1. Thank you for this insightful and loving statement. My spouse Deni and I are trrribly sad about Orlando…it is almost Stonewall again. Your encouragement of our people and institutions not only to accept, or tolerate. (“live and let live”), but to open their hearts and embrace ALL people is so much needed now. The entire nation must finally care enough to demand includion for ALL— withour lives and in our laws!

  2. Dear Barkley,

    Well done.

    Back in the early ’80s I went to Philadelphia with a group of women friends – some gay, some not. We saw the film *The Gods Must Be Crazy* and laughed until our faces hurt. After the movie we got something to eat, but we still weren’t ready to call it a night. One woman suggested a women’s bar so off we went. We all danced and had a great time.

    One of the not-gay women was on a husband-search mission. The next night she went to a singles-mixer evening. She called me to say she didn’t know what to talk about with her therapist that week. She said she couldn’t remember having so much fun out dancing as she had at the women’s bar, but she wasn’t sure that her therapist – a he – could “handle” it. A few days later she told me she had talked about the singles mixer night.

    Remember: First, Reagan was President. Women had just gotten the right to have credit cards with their names imprinted on them, and I, as a new widow/single mother, had to keep the utilities at my house in my deceased husband’s name or pay a deposit to continue them because I didn’t have a “record” of earnings and wasn’t currently employed.

    Gay bars provided that safe space for gays, but they could also be fun places for me and my friends to go to dance and socialize without the overlay of being hit on or judged.

    Thank you for writing this, Valerie

  3. In the middle of my legal career I was thrust into a lawsuit which arose out of a senseless act of violence. Three young men decided that they were entitled to take a car that didn’t belong to them. In the course of executing their act of greed, one of them decided to pull the trigger on a gun that was in his hand. When I later asked the 20 year old why he shot the car owner at point blank range, he uttered words that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “I wanted to see what it was like to see someone die.” When these sickening words spilled out of his mouth, I was struck by the vacantness of his eyes. They had no life whatsoever. Far from being the windows to his soul, they appeared to me to be holes into an eternal, bottomless, black void.
    I feel certain that the killer in Orlando must have had those same black, blank eyes. Eyes that could not see the beauty of life or follow the path of right rather than wrong. Eyes that were connected to an equally black vacant soul – and one so dark that it allowed him to take a life – to snuff out a light that God had created.
    I think it’s important to acknowledge that any human, sick and vacant enough to have pulled the trigger so many times in Orlando; to have killed so many and hurt so many more; likely wasn’t striking out at the GLBT community as much as he was seeking a crowd that he knew would be gathered in joy and had lives that he could cut short. My hope is that we will recognize the evil of this individual; the blackness of his one sad empty soul; and that the hearts of all that survived, will refuse to be stained by his hate. Instead, I pray that we all will be filled with the extraordinary light of all the beautiful lives that were brought to such a sad screeching halt and that our combined strength be used to carry the light, love and joy of our GLBT brothers and sisters forward forever and ever. We have the ability and strength to see that their lives don’t ever really end.

  4. Just perfect. That closing paragraph, “the peace of God, which passes all understanding”, which I’ve heard hundreds of times never seemed more necessary. Thank you.

  5. Your impassioned sermon on Sunday concerning the Orlando tragedy reminded me why I chose to be an Episcopalian. As the Gospel is for all, so the church is for ALL–not just those who look like me and act like me and think like me. The Episcopal Church is a sanctuary where ALL are truly welcome and loved. Others say it; our faith and Christ Church Cathedral live it. Thank you!

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