Violated Sanctuaries: Pulse, Mother Emanuel, and Intersectional Evil – Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey

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In some cultures, sharing the day of death links a group of people to each other. The Vietnam Monument in Washington DC offers an example. A woman of Chinese descent named Maya Ying Lin designed the memorial. The names of the deceased are listed on a shiny granite stone in chronological order by the date of casualty in alphabetical order. Lin’s artful design of arranging the names of those who may not have known each other in life but shared death on the same day infers that these saints shared a deep knowing of another sort. Rev. Dr. Pamela LightseyAssociate Dean for Community Life and Lifelong Learning as well as Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice at the Boston University School of Theology, reflects on exactly this thing – and how the terrible desecration of holy ground (a church, a nightclub, a body) must unite all of us in the struggle for justice and the struggle against evil. Read, Listen, and Contemplate.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


Sadly, the cruelest contradictions of our struggle are often seen in times of crisis. As I write this blog aboard a plane bound for Orlando – a city reeling from the 49 LGBTQ Latinx and friends massacred by a United States terrorist – I feel these contradictions as much as I felt them a year ago when another United States terrorist massacred 8 members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and their pastor.

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During the days that followed this tragedy the Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – the law that prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages of couples who wed in states where such marriages were legal – was  unconstitutional. The year prior this same court in its ruling, Shelby v. Holder, struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, basically gutting a key provision that prohibited states from discriminatory voting practices including legislation that adversely affects voting.  So it was that the Supreme Court had struck down DOMA just a day after it gutted key  provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  

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I distinctly remember watching the memorial simultaneously tweeting my thoughts about the history of Mother Emanuel, as the church is called. I was struck by the dearth of knowledge about this historic church and its founders. I and other Black scholars, leaders and activists were therefore busy filling the gaping hole that left out so much African American history while journalists and political pundits described the church as though it came into being only as a religious site. Mother Bethel was much more. In fact, it was a church born in protest to racism. Its leaders included Richard Allen – who founded the denomination which we know now as the African Methodist Episcopal Church – after enduring racism within the white Methodist Episcopal Church. Six years after the creation of Mother Bethel, two of its founders, Denmark Vesey and Morris Brown were charged with helping to plan  a slave revolt. Vesey was executed and Brown was incarcerated but ultimately set free. This was and is the history many Americans know little of even, regrettably, when the spotlight of American media shined upon it and its followers.

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CHARLESTON, SC – JUNE 26: President Barack Obama sings “Amazing Grace” as he delivers the eulogy for South Carolina state senator and Rev. Clementa Pinckney during Pinckney’s funeral service June 26, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Suspected shooter Dylann Roof, 21, is accused of killing nine people on June 17th during a prayer meeting in the church, which is one of the nation’s oldest black churches in Charleston. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

I was overcome with a deep sense of loss and pride as I watched the memorial. As an African American, who had lived most of my life worshiping in predominately Black churches, I understood the liturgy, connected with much that was being broadcast, the familiar phrases of hope and determination in the face of the horrors of bigotry; the gospel music soothing the souls of those who swayed from side to side in the pews; the unique expressions and idioms used by African American clergy; the leadership and the solemn reverence African Americans have for their episcopal leaders. When President Obama “preached” his keynote ending it with a signature “preacherly” hymn, I was lachrymose. I remember seeing Breaking News alerts about the SCOTUS decision on DOMA and I remember filling torn because I could feel no celebration in my spirit that day. The LGBTQ community had won a significant victory but African American LGBTQ person’s attention was fixed on Charleston, SC.

How does it feel to be a problem? These words written by W.E. B. DuBois haunt me in an inspirational way for my blackness and sexual identity and expression are often problematic. I encouraged the LGBTQ community a few days after the SCOTUS decision to remember the pain their African American family were experiencing despite the end of DOMA. We should always be cautious to move to the universal without taking into account the particularity of the oppression communities within our community experience. The is especially true this year as we remember the Charleston 9.

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The massive vigil in Orlando, Florida after the Pulse massacre.

This year, we must remember the massacre of 9 African Americans killed by a young white male terrorist as they sat in their church studying the bible. A sacred place; sacred study. We must also keep in mind 49 of our Latinx LGBTQ family along with other Black and Brown LGBTQ persons who were massacred by another domestic terrorist while in what is also considered a sacred setting, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando. I hope we will not allow the particular contexts of these innocent persons to be consumed under a narrative that erases. Yes, this tragedy occurred in Orlando and yes, this attack affects Americans BUT, this evil was perpetrated and designed specifically as a hate crime with LGBTQ persons as targets. This terrorist drove from his home over 2 hours away for the purpose of going to this club because he hated the LGBTQ community. We cannot allow this truth to become obscured. Nor can we allow the truth that those he killed were Latin@/Latinx primarily along with other Brown and Black people. This is especially important not only for the sake of history but also for the here and now.

Right now support services have and are being put into place to help persons who managed to escape and those who were shot but survived. Though not all who survived are Brown and Black people, most are. Therefore, these services will need to be culturally sensitive in their design, outreach and implementation. I am so very aware that it is during these times of crisis, when healing should be taking place that those who suffer are additionally traumatized by persons who lack competence, have no social skills and/or are culturally insensitive. Our Latinx LGBTQ community ought feel our love and see our care. Now is not the time for political rhetoric around immigration couched in language of American protection and exceptionalism.

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It is also important that persons of faith do no harm. Even as I honor the memory of those killed at Mother Emanuel, I pray the love that filled that bible study on the night of their assassination is the same love that the LGBTQ community hears and receives from religious leaders now and in the days ahead. That love needs to drown out the hateful language as “love the sinner hate the sin” and other such fanatical phrases that the LGBTQ community has grown accustomed to hearing by people who profess to love God. Even now religious “leaders” have mounted their pulpits and broadcast lecterns to spew hate language.

Is it, then, any wonder why we find sanctuary at the club?!!

LGBTQ activism that does not also serve the interests of Black and Brown people perpetuates white privilege. It advances white LGBTQ utopia while ignoring the everyday oppressions of Black and Brown people in general and Black and Brown LGBTQ persons specifically. It is my belief that any social justice activist work that does not regard the liberation of oppressed people within its core will always be obliged to a stratified vision that requires justification for attending to “other causes.” There is no real solidarity without intersectional work. The struggle to end discrimination is never, can never be, if it is authentic done for the benefit of only one oppressed group.

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Wilfredo Perez (L), a local bartender at a gay bar, is embraced by his partner Jackson Hollman during a vigil to commemorate victims of a mass shooting at the Pulse gay night club in Orlando, Florida, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif – RTX2FUPG

Wednesday night, June 17, 2015 and Sunday morning, June 12, 2016. Sanctuaries, sacred places, Black and Brown people, heterosexual and LGBTQ. Tragedy can bring us together. I pray we can work together for the common good, which is the eradication of bigotry. For this cause we can say we ALL must be invested.


PamelaLightseyFerguson.jpgThe Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey is a scholar, social justice activist, and military veteran whose academic and research interests include: classical and contemporary just war theory, Womanist theology, Queer theory and theology, and African American religious history and theologies. Dr. Lightsey is currently the only out African American queer lesbian ordained as an elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church. She currently serves as co-chair the American Academy of Religion’s Womanist Approaches to Religion and Society Group, as well as helps lead the work of the steering committee to develop their annual conference sessions dedicated to privileging the theological and ethical scholarship and experiences of Black women in America. She has also published a recent book, Our Lives Matter: a Womanist Queer Theology, which she shared with the students at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago earlier this year. A professor at the Boston University School of Theology, she is Associate Dean for Community Life and Lifelong Learning as well as Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice.

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