On June 12, 2016, a lone gunman entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.,and killed 49 people and injured 53 others. It was our country’s deadliest mass murder and the largest terrorist attack since 9/11. This incident has left many in our country and around the world reimagining many things, but the thought weighing heaviest on my mind is what does sanctuary truly look like today? In a world where people can get shot in Bible study, first grade school rooms and yes, in nightclubs, what is safe?
Some may take issue to me grouping the 26 lives lost during the Dec. 12, 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and last year’s June 18 mass murder at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church with the Orlando massacre. Let’s look at what makes them different and what makes them the same. What makes them different is the populations impacted and the location; young, predominantly white children and their teachers in Newtown, Black church goers in Charleston and predominately Black and Latino LGBT people and allies in Orlando. What makes them similar is much more compelling. They were all killed in places considered sacred.
There is a song I have not been able to get out of my head since the Orlando shootings. The song was written in 1982 by Michael Cleveland and it was titled, “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life.” While the original lyrics were about a woman who was bored and goes to the club and is revived, the song became so much more for so many in the LGBT community. It was an acknowledgement that while the church may not be safe, home may no longer be safe, school and the streets were not welcoming, in the club, that place of refuge and sanctuary, one could find comfort, companionship and a degree of peace and acceptance not found many other places. I know this firsthand.
As a young lesbian, I lived the first part of my life deeply closeted. I was in the church and was clear that while God accepted me and my family did, however, I knew my conservative church would not, so I hid my authentic self to please them and protect myself. The only authentic sanctuary I could find was the gay clubs in my community. They were so much more than just a place to dance; they were the places where I could be fully accepted, or at least not rejected, based on whom I loved and who loved me. How grateful I was to see others, like myself, dancing to Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” or BeBe and CeCe Winans singing “Addictive Love,” a testament to their great love for God. I did my own version of a Holy shout through my dance to Bob Marley’s “One Love” and Carl Bean’s “I was Born This Way.” Those songs were like hymns to me and so many others. They bought comfort in a world that often seemed all too cruel and unjust. How does that translate to today?
As a pastor, I have to own that the church has a ways to go in terms of its welcome of LGBT children of God. It has not always been a kind, generous, welcoming or safe spaces for many. I believe what is now called for, while the church is getting itself together, is a reimagining of sanctuary. How do we support and consider sacred, non-traditional spaces like coffee shops, community centers, parks, Internet sites and yes, night clubs? Jesus spent very little time in the synagogue. He spent most of His time among the people, meeting them where they were to share the Good News.
While we can agree that schools and churches should remain spaces that people can come to connect, feel accepted and affirmed, why not gay clubs? For those who take exception with this thought, then open your hearts and your minds to the possibility that God just may be using this tragedy to force us all to think about ways we can create a safer, more just world for all. As a society, we must find ways to allow ourselves to be stretched so we may grow in our understanding and welcome of those different than ourselves.
Until that day comes, then go on and play that funky music DJ!
— Bishop Tonyia Rawls is Pastor of Sacred Souls Community Church and executive director of The Freedom Center for Social Justice in Charlotte, N.C. She works toward culture shifts at the intersection of faith, gender, sexual orientation and social justice.