News of the massacre in Orlando was just unfolding when I walked into choir rehearsal at my church in downtown Chicago this morning, June 12, 2016.
The other singers were gathering music folders and sharing bits of news in low, shocked voices. Fifty people dead... more wounded. Shot with the same type of weapon used in Newtown to mow down children, in Aurora to slaughter moviegoers. Some victims' families not knowing what had become of their loved ones, others grieving with the sure knowledge that the person they loved had died in gunfire and mayhem and blood.
I know that grief. I've felt it ever since a teenager broke into my sister Nancy's home years ago and shot her and her husband to death. Nancy was expecting their first child when two bullets from the killer's gun ripped through her abdomen, killing her and her baby.
Since that day, I've made it a point to learn about guns. Here is what I found out: they are easy to get, and hard to regulate. Small fixes that could have saved my sister's life--fingerprint identification technology or built-in trigger locks, for instance--simply aren't required in the manufacture of an implement of death. On the contrary, many guns and the ammunition that feeds them seem designed to kill the maximum number of people in the most efficient way possible.
So I lobbied Congress and my state legislature and village council for sensible gun laws. I wrote op-ed pieces. I donated money to groups like the Brady Campaign and the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. I campaigned for candidates like Democrat Brad Schneider, now running for Congress in the 10th District in Illinois, whose strong record on preventing gun violence puts the record of his opponent to shame. I spoke on panels about guns at libraries, churches, schools. I marched, with people like Father Michael Pfleger, through the bullet-scarred streets of Chicago. I went to the wake of Hadiya Pendleton, the young woman shot to death only a week after she had performed at President Obama's inauguration festivities. My older son came with me; he wrote on a poster where mourners could leave messages these words: "I didn't know you, but I've come to say goodbye to you. May your death have meaning."
Today, though, when news of the worst gun massacre in U.S. history washed over me, all I could do was sit down with my fellow choir members and sing. One anthem, "Sing Me to Heaven," was about death and grief, love and comfort, pain and passion, love songs and lullabies and requiems. It felt as if it had been written for this day of mourning.
Driving home from church, I heard a press conference on the radio at which Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer spoke, too, of love. "We need to love each other, and we will not be defined by a hateful shooter," he said.
Love, I thought. That's all I've got right now to stand up to this hatred and murder. I've got nothing else.
A middle-schooler once asked me: "Evil is out there--what do we do?" I answered without even thinking, "Love. Nothing else is stronger than evil. Only love is." That feels even more true today than it did then.
Tonight, my younger son, age 12, and I stood at a vigil at Halsted and Roscoe in Chicago--the heart of Boystown, the first officially recognized gay village in the United States. Not to speak or to write or lobby or donate or campaign--those things will come--but to honor lives lost. To love.
We were surrounded by a crowd as multi-colored as the rainbow displays that mark the parameters of Boystown. A Latina with glossy long hair wrapped her arms around her blond female partner; two young men leaned their heads together. There were families with kids, old men with tattoos, all of us with faces upturned toward the setting sun, listening to the speakers, who spoke of love.
The event closed with a prayer, and then an invitation. "Everyone turn to your neighbors," the speaker said, "and give them a hug." We in the crowd turned to one another, arms outstretched.