Last week was a quartet of pain. The first anniversary of the Pulse massacre, the second anniversary of the Mother Emanuel Massacre, and then the police officers who shot and killed Philado Castile in the Twin Cities and Syville Smith in Milwaukee were were found ‘not guilty’ on all charges. Vicar Josh Evans, then, reflects on all of these things as we prepare for Pride Weekend – asking vital questions about intersectionality, violence, and the role of the church. Read, comment, and share, friends.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
When I was asked to contribute a post to this blog to say something about the one-year anniversary of the Pulse massacre, my first thought was that I simply did not have time — or at least not time to do this task any justice. My second thought then turned to how daunting it would feel to be the voice of LSTC on this commemoration, especially since those killed in this attack were predominantly queer Latinx persons. Even as a gay man, I retain a great deal of privilege being a white, cisgender male. So with that in mind, I offer these words.
Nearly a year ago today on this blog, my friend and fellow student Vicki Pedersen wrote in the immediate wake of the Pulse massacre: “I heard a word identifying Pulse further — it was a gay nightclub. My body froze. This is my family. Suddenly I was in Orlando and at Pulse. This could have been me, my wife, or anyone I know in my community — the LGBTQ community — in whatever city or state we call home.”
This could have been me. This could have been me or any of my friends at Roscoe’s, Sidetrack, or any of the bars in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood. (As a friend reminded me last week, we were actually in Boystown the night before the shooting at Pulse took place. So yeah, it really could have been us.) This could have happened anywhere that my community — the LGBTQ+ community — gathers to dance, to have fun, to seek sanctuary. Pulse was more than just another mass shooting.
Pulse got personal.
In the aftermath of the shooting at Pulse, I received and sent texts of support from and to many of my LGBTQ+ friends, checking in with one another to make sure we were holding up okay. My Facebook feed was filled with many like-minded sentiments, and yet, as horrific and shocking as what happened was, it also brought us together as a community. In the days and weeks that followed, I attended a vigil held in a crowded 7/11 parking lot in the heart of Boystown, and I gathered with members of Holy Trinity, my home congregation on Chicago’s north side, for a prayer service. As my pastor read aloud the names of those killed and we lit candles in their memory, we cried. If Pulse immobilized us in fear in its immediate aftermath, it wasn’t going to stop us — indeed, it couldn’t stop us — from turning to the collective strength of our community and the resources of our faith.
But perhaps what was most frightening about Pulse was the matter of sanctuary lost. Gay bars and clubs across the country, and indeed the world, are sacred places of refuge for the LGBTQ+ community, places where we can be ourselves, among our own people, free from the hatred and ridicule and discrimination and bullying that we so often encounter in our “secular” spaces, the church included. What happened that night at Pulse was an invasion of that refuge.
Sanctuary lost. A concept not unknown to a community whose history includes the Stonewall Riots and the fierce, bold witness of Marsha P. Johnson and other trans women of color. A history most recently memorialized in the ABC mini-series When We Rise, chronicling the early history of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement in San Francisco that included other raids into places of sanctuary.
Sanctuary lost. A term I borrowed in the year prior to Pulse to describe another senseless act of hate that claimed the lives of nine beloved children of God at bible study (!) in the basement of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.
Then, this past Friday, the unthinkable and yet simultaneously inevitable happened: the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile was acquitted of all charges. And then, just two days ago, moments after I submitted this piece for publication, the news alerts began to creep across my phone: former Milwaukee police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown found not guilty of fatally shooting Sylville Smith, a 23-year-old black man. Police body camera footage showed Officer Heaggan-Brown fired the second fatal shot when Smith no longer had a gun and was on the ground — “hands up, with no place to go,” to quote prosecutor John Chisolm.
Which makes me wonder: What happens when there is no sanctuary left to be lost?
What happens when there is, quite literally, “no place to go” for safety as a person of color in this country? It is painful enough for me as an out gay man to experience a tragedy like Pulse, but I have the privilege of seeking refuge in other places, like my home congregation. I have the privilege, as a white person, of not having to fear for my life when I see a police officer. But what happens when that’s not a possibility?
What happens when all sanctuary, it seems, has been lost?
On Sunday, June 11, I gathered with a crowd of at least a couple hundred others in Lincoln, Nebraska, for one of many local extensions of the National Pride March happening that day in Washington, D.C. I was grateful to be in solidarity with my own people and our allies, but I was especially grateful for the witness of local #BlackLivesMatter activist Dominique Morgan.
As one living at the intersection of queer and black identities, Morgan’s is an experience I will never know but whose words spoken intentionally to queer youth of color that day on the steps of the capitol must be heard, especially among the often white-washed LGBTQ+ community. While I fail to remember Morgan’s exact words, he spoke poignantly of the reality of living each day under multiple levels of oppression, in which physical survival occupies much of his consciousness.
I find myself returning to Morgan’s words in light of this one-year anniversary of the Pulse massacre and the miscarriage of justice in the Castile and Smith verdicts, which compels me to ask, again: What happens when there is no sanctuary left to be lost? What happens when a queer black person finds no refuge in the black church for their sexuality or gender identity, as Episcopal priest and womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes, and encounters only greater rejection in a gay bar, as my friend Maddix Vickers, a recent graduate of the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, witnessed just this past weekend:
Still, for Philando Castile, perhaps one of the places he should have been safest — in his own car with his own family — was violated when Officer Yanez opened fire, only to be later acquitted. Not even those who claim to “serve and protect” or the courts which purport to uphold “justice” can offer any semblance of sanctuary for our siblings of color.
Not even in our own churches, ELCA, can we claim to offer unflinching support and refuge, as Lenny Duncan reminded us on Monday, for those at the intersection of oppressed identities. What happens indeed when there is no sanctuary left to be lost?
I’m not sure I have an answer for that, but I can say this: In the aftermath of the tragedies at Pulse and Mother Emanuel, what the respective communities represented by those locales experienced was indeed sanctuary lost, yes, but also sanctuary reclaimed in the vigils that followed and the community that coalesced.
Not one month after Pulse, I moved to Omaha for my year-long internship at Augustana Lutheran Church — one of only two Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregations in the wider Nebraska Synod. In March, I had the opportunity to preach at our annual RIC Sunday service, in which we welcomed members of the River City Mixed Chorus and celebrated diversity and inclusion, particularly for members of the LGBTQ+ community. In what was definitively my most personal sermon to date, I shared my story as a gay man, coming out of a conservative, fundamentalist faction of the Lutheran church and finding my way to two very important faith communities that welcomed and affirmed me for all of who I am and, ultimately, reawakened and encouraged my call to ministry. At Augustana, too, I have felt that same welcome and affirmation of my gifts for ministry as a gay man, and in the comments I received following the service, it would seem my sermon, somehow, offered a sliver of that same message to many in the pews that day.
Between the vigils in the aftermath of Pulse and during the years of my own re-formation in those faith communities, I discovered — and continue to discover — again and again the importance of the community. The community takes seriously intersectionality — the queer Latinx victims of Pulse, the queer women of color behind the Black Lives Matter movement, the trans women of color whose holy anger sparked Stonewall, the members of Holy Trinity that gathered in communal lament to pray and light candles, an inner-city congregation in Omaha that stands in near-isolation as an RIC congregation in its synod and intentionally welcomes a gay vicar, the thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets of St. Paul in these last days to decry injustice.
I am also indebted to the insights and witness of my womanist mentors, among whom I count LSTC’s own Dr. Linda Thomas as well as Dr. Pamela Lightsey of Boston University School of Theology. It is womanist theology that reminds us of its commitment to “survival and wholeness of an entire people” (to use Alice Walker’s own definition, emphasis mine), and out of that commitment, Lightsey, herself a queer black woman, reminds us of the importance of intersectionality:
“In any movement for social justice we must take care that we do not quiet the voices of the oppressed within our community for the sake of lifting up the oppressed de jure… Anyone who adds the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to their Twitter or Facebook post is reminded that the Black lives that matter include Black LGBTQ lives.” (Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, p. 66).
“Combatting racism is a necessary action for all LGBTQ persons who believe in freedom. Where racism affects Black people, it affects all LGBTQ persons not only because of Black LGBTQ persons but because justice is not really won until there is justice for all. If we really believe in one race, the human race, the crisis of #BlackLivesMatter is a crisis for all lives.” (Ibid., p. 98-99).
All of these, and more, are members of my community, and that community makes up a bold, brave, and fiercely defiant cloud of witnesses on whose shoulders I stand and from whom I take inspiration and gather strength. Now, more than ever, when the lives of queer and black and brown persons are given little regard or respect, the gospel of a God who comes to us as a first-century, Middle Eastern, Jewish peasant living under oppressive foreign occupation demands that we be about the work of justice and reconciliation. For those of us who are called to ordained ministry in the ELCA, the expectations placed on us demand nothing less than “speak[ing] publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world” (ELCA Constitution, 7.31.02.a, emphasis mine). It’s a tall order, but it’s a task we never have to take up alone, so surrounded by such a cloud of living and sainted witnesses. Deo gratias.
Vicar Josh Evans is a seminary student from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he is pursuing his Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree, and a candidate for ordained ministry in the ELCA. He is excited to be serving his internship year among the people of God at Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska. Vicar Josh has a passion for liturgy and worship, reading, coffee, ice cream, and spoiling his two cats, Oliver and Sophia.