Last week, I filed silently into Glide Memorial Church on an evening after work. Inside the church sanctuary and adjacent to the entrance, I walked past the memorial posters with photos and names—Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson. Their faces were spread across the first pew, reserved entirely for them.
I found a spot in the middle of the many rows and took my seat. I looked around at the rainbow spectrum of people surrounding me. Eventually there were more than 350 of us. We had come to honor the nine people murdered in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, targeted because they were African American. I guessed that others there were like me, not knowing any of the dead personally. Yet we had all come to honor them as our kin.
Waiting quietly for the vigil to begin, I felt immediately at home despite typically having no connection to churches. Fifty feet above me were timbers installed in 1929 and painted with pastel flowers. The stained glass windows featured flowing patterns in bright greens, blues, reds. Banners hung around the perimeter. “We are all precious and accepted.” “Justice.” “Liberation.”
My tears started with the first words from the man who began the ceremony. Wearing a tee shirt emblazoned “Love Heals,” he told us, “We did not come here to tear down—we came here to lift people up. Thank you for your head and your heart. We will not break up. We will put together.” He read a powerful poem about his personal experience as an African American and concluded by leading us all in a chant, “Black lives matter.”
One by one, individuals stepped up to the altar to light a candle. Nine times, a flame was lit in tall green cylinders set on a bright green tapestry with two large red hearts. After each one, a speaker picked up a poster and showed us the photo while reading about the person whose life was taken. Between the readings, we all paused in silence to the chime of a metal singing bowl, reminiscent of the Buddhist retreats I have attended.
At tables around the church were Action Stations—places to share condolences with the Emanuel African Methodist Church, write letters to the South Carolina legislature to remove the Confederate flag, create a patch for a quilt of comfort and solidarity, take signs of protest and hope to share, record a video of what needed to be said, and a brainstorming list of “pathways/future actions to challenge racist structures and systems.”
Grief was just the first step. As the evening’s printed program said, it was a time to remember and a time to act.
The following morning, when the news of the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage was announced early in the day West Coast time, the Bay Area community exploded in jubilation.
Just minutes after I awakened, horns were honking around town, even the boats in the harbor. At work, we cried and laughed and hugged each other. On the eve of Pride weekend, people flocked to San Francisco City Hall and Castro Street in spontaneous parties. Everywhere there was a celebration, whether it was at someone’s desk or filling the street. We smiled and greeted strangers, with a tangible flood of joy for the whole weekend.
On an ordinary weekday afterward, I found myself drawn to a personal pilgrimage alone, to express my gratitude more privately.
In the 1970s, 575 Castro Street in San Francisco was Harvey Milk’s photography shop and LGBT activist hub. It was the center for launching the campaign of the nation’s first openly gay man elected to prominent public office as well as a national movement—and the epicenter for events that ultimately led to Harvey’s assassination.
For the first time after decades living in the area, I visited the former camera store. Although it’s been nearly 37 years since Harvey’s death and Castro Camera is long gone, I needed to come here to honor his memory and the success he helped create. Today, the building is the home of the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store.
Sign on the front door of 575 Castro Street honoring Harvey Milk
Inside, among the clothing and mugs for sale, Harvey’s spirit was celebrated in photos and videos. On the wall was the quote that showed he knew what he was risking: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door.”
It didn’t feel right to leave without buying something to further the cause. I left with a small rainbow pin for the bulletin board at my desk.
Standing on busy Castro Street outside, I said a silent thank you to Harvey. No candles, poems, or chimes this time. Just the tears.
A rainbow pin now prompts me to remember what one woman shared during the Glide vigil. “Love is more powerful than hate. We can overcome. We have practiced over decades radical acceptance. We are the hope. We must continue.”
Learn about the important work of Glide and the Human Rights Campaign.
UPDATE: I shared this post with Glide to express my appreciation, and they added it to the Glide blog. I am deeply honored.