Like most people, I am heartbroken and angry about the massacre in Orlando. I spent many hours on Monday and Tuesday trying to write something meaningful about the tragedy, but like many pastors I know, I felt inept at articulating hope in the context of such viciousness, and I wasn’t sure what I had to say that might help the larger conversations.
Then I had a friend on Facebook share the insight that, because the victims in Orlando were gay, and it’s the wider LGBTQ community that’s most traumatized by the shooting (even though, of course, all communities are hurt by these events), it’s actually fine and probably better for well-intentioned straight pastors (like me) to chill for a minute, not rush to speak and write about the shooting. Instead, she suggested we spend time intentionally listening to the gay community and what they have to say about the tragedy, and if we post things, to share others’ voices on our platforms. Focus on receiving what LGBTQ neighbors are willing to share about their experiences with homophobia, being targets of violence, and what it’s like for them to process the news from Orlando.
I am very, very thankful for this recommendation, and I’ve spent the week reading a lot of really important testimony and wisdom from my GLBTQ kindred and listening in personal conversations to my gay friends tell me how they’re doing. Beyond a doubt I am richer for it.
Making an intentional commitment to simply hold space with others, not assuming that you have anything brilliant or inspiring to say to them, not needing your own voice to be particularly prominent, but just listening closely to other people share their life experience and their perspectives on events and issues - this is what makes beloved community possible.
I say this as a Christian pastor, someone to whom people turn to for my views and opinions and faith teaching on important matters. If I, who am called to speak the truth in love, shut up and listen on a regular basis, I increase the likelihood that I might say something good when I do speak, later.
Listening helps us learn and relearn the truth about each other, and it’s critically important when people have been hurt.
If you hear about a victim of rape, or a racially marginalized group, or a community that’s been targeted by gun violence, or any other mistreatment of people, the ones sharing the story - whether it’s the media or your neighbors down the street - may believe they’re on the side of the victims, but still inadvertently perpetuate labels and categories, and amplify associations that devalue the victims’ experience.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to responsibly share information about other people’s traumatic experiences. Of course we should - we can’t only talk about important things if we’re personally part of the group most affected.
But, if we’re NOT part of the group most affected, it’s also critically important that we listen closely to victims’ own words about their own experience.
So this turns out to be the simple message I felt was actually worthy of me writing down and sharing with you. Often, especially in times of trauma, the best thing to do is shut up and pay attention. When terrible things happen, when people raise their voices in anguish and rage, when folks cry out for changes in how we order our society so that their devastation might be repeated less frequently, we need to listen, first and foremost.
For real, LISTEN.
Many people who want to change the world don’t consider that they may need to be changed, themselves. But we do, all of us. If we’re ready and willing to listen, learn, and be changed, we will find God using us to create the world we long for.