I guest preached at my home church in College Station June 12, 2016. Friends Congregational Church is an inclusive United Church of Christ congregation that focuses on issues of peace and justice.
The week’s lectionary called us away from self-righteousness, that simply spews our fear and frustration in response to injustice, and toward righteous indignation that comes from a place of faith and love. I named atrocities from the previous year and asked the congregation to consider these questions:
“Is my anger, are my weary rants, fueled by love for ALL parties involved, or by my own helplessness that just wants to lash out because I fear I have no other recourse? Do I limit God’s creativity and come from an immature space of wanting a simple justice of revenge?”
I reminded them that we can become equally unjust by our denigrating and hate-fueled words as we stand up against the acts of others, and that “true restoration means both oppressed and oppressor are healed — in our world, and inside of us … Can we be angry and sin not? Can we show great love to a world desperate to know another way is possible?”
I did not know that week as I wrote the sermon that hours before I delivered it, a shooter would kill 49 people and injure 53 others, most LGBTQ persons, at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
News broke as I made the 2-hour drive to the church. As I wrestled with my emotions, I questioned the appropriateness of the sermon. Pastor Dan and I decided the words were that much more appropriate, and we planned to speak to the congregation at the service’s end about the tragedy.
It was one of the hardest sermons I’ve ever preached. It’s easy to speak hard words. It’s harder to live them. Hardest still in the face of atrocities that hit so very close to home.
Pastor Dan shared the news as the service came to a close. For the LGBTQ and ally congregants there, it was especially heart-wrenching. He spoke words of comfort and grace and determination.
We reminded the congregation that because the shooter was reportedly a Muslim man, we could expect rhetoric targeting our Muslim brothers and sisters and to be mindful of offering them our increased support, even as we grieved.
Even as we spoke those words, I could see the church’s sign near the road, wishing a blessed Ramadan to our Muslim neighbors, that had been there all week. Not one member even whispered the possibility of taking that sign down after the shooting.
In the days following the shooting, a young Muslim woman posted a Facebook photo of herself in full abaya and Hijab hugging that very sign, expressing gratitude for the well wishes and extending her condolences to the congregation she knew was suffering in the wake of the shootings. We all felt that hug, deeply.
As the church service ended, I asked the congregation to look around, catch the eyes of one another, and pause to slowly say, “You are not alone.” As we did, something changed. Fear and anger were replaced by love, humility, and determination to seek freedom for both oppressed and oppressor.
When we gather to grieve and comfort one another, how restorative it can be. I grow weary of needing to attend vigils after tragedy, but I do not tire of being reminded of our best selves. It reassures us we are not alone, calls us to seek justice that transforms, and convinces us, once again, that by the grace of G-d, a better way is possible.
Rev. Dr. Carla Cheatham is a national speaker and author on the emotional competencies of caregiving, calling us to care for ourselves so we can show up well for others and can be reached at carlacheatham.com, hospicewhispers.com, or email@example.com. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.