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Ray Duckler: The Orlando massacre had one overriding theme on this night

  • JJ Smith speaks during a vigil at Wesley United Methodist Church in Concord for the victims of Sunday’s mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Inside the local church Tuesday night, the issue was simple.
A man opened fire Sunday at a gay bar in Orlando, Fla. Forty-nine people, most of them probably gay, were killed in the worst mass shooting in American history. That makes this a story about hating gay people, disrupting our sense of progress in this area, like the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage.

But once the congregation of about 150 moved outside to the comfortable twilight, the layers here lined up like cars moving from the Wesley United Methodist Church parking lot.

The killer reportedly was loyal to the Islamic State, making this a war on terror story. Some mentioned he had been seen at the very gay bar he’d shot up and had used a dating app for gay men, perhaps introducing his inner turmoil and mental illness to the mix. The shooter had been on the FBI’s radar three years ago, meaning we had to look at screening processes and missed signals.

Donald Trump’s first public words after the killings came in our own backyard, at Saint Anselm College, where the GOP candidate for president used this nightmare to repudiate President Obama’s policies.

Both Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton turned this into a political football game, about national security and gun control, rather than joining hands in a show of strength against our enemies, both foreign and domestic.

So while the Greater Concord Interfaith Council staged a magnificent ceremony honoring those killed Sunday, the blending of other elements was never far away.

“You can look at society, you can look at religion, you can look at homophobia, you can look at gun laws,” said Kris Schultz of Concord, the Greater Concord Interfaith Council’s vice president. “Look at these factors, and all of us are doing that right now, and Facebook is doing that right now.”

But the overwhelming reason for attending Tuesday’s vigil, beyond the carnage, was obvious: The gay community had been targeted, and dozens of people wanted to honor victims of a hate crime. They wanted to show their support for a segment of society long brushed aside and viewed with disdain.

“For the LGBT community, this was a wonderful outpouring of support for the vulnerable,” said Rabbi Robin Nafshi of Temple Beth Jacob. “Sometimes in Concord and New Hampshire we forget how marginalized these people around the world and in our country can be.”

Nafshi was one of many religious leaders on hand Tuesday night. She’s a powerful and articulate voice for gay rights and religious freedom, and I asked her to connect the mass murder at the gay club to the theme that surfaced during the ceremony here.

She acknowledged that the site of the murders, a place for gays to gather and have fun, factored into the mood Tuesday, saying, “With each of these tragedies in our world, particularly when segments of our communities are targeted, those members of that community feel a particular vulnerability or affinity. So the LGBT community felt it this week, and a year ago, it was the African-American community in South Carolina.”

Still, Nafshi rejected, or at least resisted, using labels to help make sense of what had happened.

“There are a number of emotionally charged aspects of the story as well as politically charged aspects of the story,” Nafshi told me. “But the bottom line is that 49 people are dead, and to me it’s almost useless to try to call this out as a homegrown terrorist issue, is this an LGBT issue, is this a gun control issue.

“If 49 people had been killed with an assault rifle somewhere in the United States by someone shooting randomly,” Nafshi continued, “yes, I think we would have come together to mourn the loss of life.”

Very true, especially in a caring area such as this. But when viewed through a narrow prism, Sunday’s massacre, the grouping of people killed and wounded, had a direct effect on Tuesday’s vigil.

That was reinforced when JJ Smith of the Concord Friends Meetinghouse, a Quaker-based organization, took the microphone. Smith is a transgender woman, a fact she revealed only recently. She’s still adjusting to the whispers and stares.

“At first I didn’t think it would be hard,” Smith said, speaking from behind the lectern at the front of the church. “But it is, it really is hard just to be yourself.”

Smith said she thought about bathroom issues recently, which one she’d use, while attending her 50th high school reunion in Pittsburgh. There, searching for a place to have a late dinner and a beer, she felt uncomfortable until finding an establishment called P Town, which features a trans, bi and gay clientele.

“The safety, or what I assumed was safety, was wonderful,” Smith said.

Victims in Orlando must have felt the same way in the early morning Sunday. They must have felt safe, dancing, socializing and wondering what to drink for last call, before everything was turned upside down, before decades of social evolution and a new dawn of acceptance had been shattered by gunfire and hatred.

“It keeps happening,” said Gene Taylor, a local software engineer, “and there don’t seem to be any signs that we as a society will try anything to stop it. It’s sad we have to keep having these vigils.”

The highlight Tuesday occurred when a list of the 49 killed was read by several religious and community leaders, each name accompanied by the lighting of a candle and the soft, gentle ping from a bell.

“Excellent,” said Concord resident Ed Bush. “It gave me a sense of belonging to the community when we were all grieving over the loss of these people. We were troubled by it all.”

In this case, on this night, in this church, violence toward the nation’s gay community grabbed the headlines.

Other discussions, other issues, were waiting right outside.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)