When a disaster occurs, or a terrible thing happens in the world, when a bomb goes off on the sidelines of a marathon or a shooter unleashes hatred in the form of ammunition at a political event or an elementary school, we all shudder, and as we listen to the news stories or read the follow-ups in the paper or online, it’s human nature to look for a story, for a person with whom we identify.
For me, that person, this week, was a young man named Luis Vielma, one of the first faces I saw when photos of the victims in last Sunday’s Orlando shooting began to circulate online. There were so many of them, 49; for some reason I attached myself to this one.
Here’s what the New York Times reported about him:
Luis Vielma was an Emergency Medical Services student at Seminole State College and was enrolled in a CPR class this summer.
The college president, Dr. E. Ann McGee, released a statement on Monday saying, “We are saddened by the tragic events this weekend and the loss of one of our own, Seminole State student, Luis Vielma. We continue to think of, and pray for the victims, their families and friends, the LGBT community, the Hispanic community, our students, and all of Orlando. These events have truly shocked and saddened the Central Florida community.”
Mr. Vielma also worked at Universal Studios at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. His high school friend Eddi Anderson told the Tampa Bay Times that Mr. Vielma loved his job there.
J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter book series that spawned films and the theme park, mourned Mr. Vielma’s loss on Twitter, posting an image of the smiling young man in a Hogwarts costume.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 13, 2016
The picture captivated me.
He’s young, smiling, pretty adorable, wearing a grey v-neck sweater vest and a white collared shirt and a Gryffindor tie. That’s gold and burgundy, in case you don’t know your Harry Potter house colors.
Lucy was in the fifth grade when she wanted to dress as Hermione for Halloween. That child is a planner, so we started in August collecting the pieces of her costume from various catalogs and stores. The piece de resistance was a Gryffindor scarf I made for her, like the ones the kids wear in the first Harry Potter movie.
I braided her thick straight hair the night before, into dozens of tiny plaits; when we undid them the next morning she had a huge head of wavy hair more like young Hermione’s – as seen in the movies – and she went off to school delighted.
At recess, kindergartners ran up and asked to hug her.
I’m telling you all this because I love my girl and don’t want anything bad to happen to her. Lucy turns 21 today.
Luis Vielma was 22. His funeral was yesterday. Somewhere his mother, Tina, is still weeping.
Whose story touches you?
At a vigil service outside my wife’s church this week, we read all 49 names, with a little bio of each. Many were Hispanic, about half of Puerto Rican background. Some were parents who left young children behind. Some were couples; a double funeral will replace a wedding for some. Some were successful in their work and others were just trying to get their lives together. They were executives and hairdressers and pharmacy technicians. One was a mom who went to the club with her son, because she loved to dance salsa. It was Latin night, you see, and the people who gathered at Pulse felt safe to dance and be together, in a nightclub they saw as a kind of sacred space, a sanctuary.
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
A multitude, keeping festival. That’s Psalm 42, verses 1-4, from this week’s lectionary. Here’s the thing. No matter what year we live in, no matter what country, no matter what our native tongue, these ancient songs of lament and hope, of question and steadfast belief, have something to say to us, to say for us. They remind us that people don’t change all that much. We celebrate and we grieve. We sing and shout, we weep and mourn.
We’re more alike than different. Luis the soccer player and Lucy the singer, one a Catholic boy and the other a Protestant girl, both confirmed in high school, both their mothers’ beloved children, their fathers’ talented darlings, with friends and classmates who would say kind things about them, and teachers who would praise them, and pictures taken dressed up like students at Hogwarts.
They are more alike than different, except for one thing. I can call my daughter on the phone today, or FaceTime with her, send her text messages with birthday cake emojis. Luis Vielma’s mother can only weep and pray.
By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. (Psalm 42:8-11)
All week I’ve been thinking about how terrifying it must have been, hiding in a dark nightclub, wondering where a murderous person with a gun had gone or held hostage by him, wondering if anyone would care enough to help. Lots of them called or texted their mothers, some who would die from deadly wounds in their bodies.
And here’s a thing that is hard to hear as a Christian, hard for me to hear from my UCC colleagues who are there in Orlando as trauma responders: some of the survivors don’t want to talk to religious people. They don’t think we really care, or that if we do, it’s only in the service of changing them to be more like us.
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)
In his letters to young churches, Paul writes something like this on three occasions. It’s nothing new for human beings to be obsessed with their differences, with finding ways to collect themselves in groups based on their characteristics, their language, or their names for God. He wrote to the Galatians because other evangelists had come among them, from a group called the “Judaizers.” The Galatians were suddenly thrust into a huge debate among the early Christians that applied only to men. On one side, the Judaizers wanted all followers of Jesus to live by Jewish law, and that included circumcision. Gentile converts wanted to follow Jesus, but they didn’t want to fulfill that particular expectation if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Paul thought it wasn’t. He wrote to assure them that through the power and grace offered of Jesus Christ, they were all one.
Paul writes something like this in three epistles, but this is the only time he mentions gender, what people in his time would have understood as one noticeably obvious and definable marker of difference. We have a much longer list of differences today, related to orientation and identity. Yet Christians have mostly been on Team Tradition with their definitions, and we have used those definitions not only to exclude but to persecute people who don’t match them just the way we like things to be. We may look back at our first century ancestors and say, “Why were they worried about something so unimportant?”
I ask you, “Why are we?”
Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Luis or Lucy: we are many kinds of people. We could define ourselves solely by our differences. Lots of people do, because it makes them feel safe, because it makes them feel righteous, because it makes them feel right. The people preaching circumcision wanted everyone to commit to the thing they believed mattered most.
When we are ready to condemn others for their differences, to define them as outside the circle of human consideration and divine love, we create a climate in which hatred and prejudice seem natural and sensible. When we combine this evil spirit of condemnation with the ready availability of semi-automatic weapons, we sentence ourselves to the kind of fearful scenes that played out in Orlando and the aftermath of suspicion and despair that continues.
It’s too easy to attach that evil, hateful spirit to one particular religion. We can find it in any religion and no religion. We can find it in the Orlando area churches now expressing sympathy for the very lives they have reviled in the past. We can find it closer to home, too, anyplace we convince ourselves that we are the only ones Jesus would care about, the only ones Jesus would want to save.
You see, Jesus went to places and ate and drank with people who the religious authorities disapproved. We’ve got him all wrong if we try to turn him into some kind of elitist priss-pot. We’ve got him wrong if we prioritize any characteristic above his love for humankind, for all kinds of humanity.
My prayer for the church and for our country is that we might embrace the idea that Paul teaches in his letter. Jew or Greek, slave or free, we are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul made it clear, not once or even twice, but three times. The culturally insurmountable conditions of his time made not one bit of difference in the eyes of God.
May it be so in our time as well.
We are many, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. Amen.