My initial reaction was, "Oh no, I couldn't possibly." I had been on an emotional skating rink ever since we learned on Sunday that 49 revelers at Orlando's Pulse nightclub had been mercilessly gunned down. The idea of getting up in front of a church full of strangers and honoring them by reading their names aloud without going completely to pieces felt far beyond me. I replied, vaguely, to my friend and frequent spiritual guide, indicating my concern and looking for tips on how to hold it together.
She should know: in her role as priest and rector of a congregation as well as chaplain at a nearby university, she is called upon repeatedly to be strong; to put her own emotions carefully aside and be a steadying force for families grieving a loved one, communities facing adversity, and myriad other human challenges that pockmark the territory of pastoral care.
Part of me hoped she would share some trade secrets on how to partition your own feelings, at least long enough to get through the service. Part of me hoped she might reply, "Oh, it's okay; if you don't feel comfortable I'll ask someone else."
Instead, she said nothing. I knew she had plenty on her plate without coddling me right now.
Not knowing what else to do, I "vaguebooked" that I had been challenged to do something difficult but important, and asked for prayers. The response was overwhelming: Over the course of the day, over 1/10 of my fairly substantial "friends list" chimed in with encouragement and promises of supplication. People I hadn't heard from in ages, whom I was pretty sure had long since "unfollowed" my endless string of arcane cyber-babbling, cheered me on. An actual celebrity I follow, whom I wasn't even sure manages his own feed said "You got this."
I did tell a handful of folks what I had been asked to do, and my fears. A few gave me permission to go with whatever emotion I felt at the time, one saying "If you go to pieces, it will be an honorable and truthful tribute to them." Another suggested "Let the Lord do the work with you tonight. It's not about performing, it's about witnessing. You can be a witness tonight."
At eleven a.m., the draft program was sent over. I scrolled to the list of names and studied it. Were I to do this, I wanted to be ready to pronounce each one respectfully. The vast majority of victims were Hispanic. How could I, in my raised-in-the-woods Euro-ness, possibly do right by them? I only sort of speak Spanish, and I didn't want to sound like Peggy Hill up there, so I got some guidance from native speakers and looked up some names I didn't know how to say, but I still felt inadequate.
To my disgust, in the research process I discovered there are already "truthers" making videos claiming the massacre was staged (as was, apparently, Newtown). Yes, because this is what we do: we fake mass murders, and get the cops, first responders, doctors and nurses to help us. I'm not sure how these people would explain where the victims are now, or where the dozens of corpses came from. In the wake of this attack, jetBlue gave away free tickets to family members needing to get to Orlando. I wonder if we should round up the "truthers" and bring them there, too, so they could explain themselves to the survivors.
Part of me wanted to spend more time on each person... connect their name to their picture and understand who they were. But I was afraid to: not yet. I knew getting to "know them" was not going to help me to remain intelligible thorough this; it would likely do the opposite. But I will do that now that the service is done.
Various friends suggested--with varying degrees of seriousness--herbal tea, a nap, a joint. I had work to do, so none of that was going to happen, and in the end I just stayed distracted until it was time.
The woman reading the other half of the names is a "P-FLAG Mom", a colleague from my activist days. (Oh, that's the other thing. I was listed as "an activist" in the leaflet. I've been shamefully inactive these past few years.) We strategized briefly about how we would walk, where we would stand, and who would read what. Having her there was comforting: I know she was ready to jump in for me if I needed her to, and vice-versa.
The service was well-planned and well-attended. We heard from an imam, a rabbi and several Christian pastors. There were songs and prayers, and then it was time. Stepping into the aisle, I waited for my P-FLAG Mom and we walked to the front. Looking over the room from the pulpit, I took a deep breath, and started reading.
And it was fine. I was a little shaky for the first group of seven, but I thought about all my cyber-cheerleaders, and hunkered down. I said seven names, she said seven, a bell rang, and we kept going. It was over quickly, and we took our seats.
Writing this, I know I probably made a lot more of it than I should have. But it was incredibly important to me that I get it right; that my reaction not detract from what anybody else needed from the service. I knew that--at something like this--one person falling apart could trigger a chain reaction, which I guess would be okay if it was meant to happen. But I didn't want to be the one to cause it.
For the last part of the service, we gathered on the labyrinth in the back of the church, around a giant sculpture, a stylized swan. We were directed to use Post-It notes to share our feelings and reactions to the event. Holding candles we joined in a few verses of Holly Near's "Fighting For Our Lives".
And then we went home.
Say their names:
Stanley Almodovar III, 23
Amanda Alvear, 25
Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33
Antonio Davon Brown, 29
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25
Luis Daniel Conde, 39
Cory James Connell, 21
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22
Paul Terrell Henry, 41
Frank Hernandez, 27
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30
Anthony Luis Laureano-Disla, 25
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25
Kimberly Morris, 37
Akyra Monet Murray, 18
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35
Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan, 24
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33
Martin Benitez Torres, 33
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
Luis S. Vielma, 22
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31