Saturday, June 25, 2016

Confronting Hate

Photo by Evan Brandt

Vernon Ross and Ira Flax, seen here Friday night at an interfaith prayer vigil for the victims of the Orlando massacre, represent respective Christian and Jewish congregations who have come together to share a permanent home and learn to understand one another. Bethel Community Church of Pottstown and Congregation Hesed Shel Emet are just one example of how we all can to learn about one another, and learn to live with one another.
Somehow, saying their names out loud makes it more real.

That's what the dozen or so of us did Friday night at the prayer vigil held at Bethel Community Church of Pottstown, held in the wake of the killings in Orlando.

Work at a newspaper long enough and you cover your share of tragedy and then some.

Your job, at fires, accidents, deaths, is to get the facts first and save your feelings for later.

Getting the name of a victim, or survivor; spelling it right, that's the job at hand.

But say the name out loud? Think about who that person was?

That's for later.

When  I got the email from Pastor Vernon Ross about the hastily arranged vigil, I realized later had come.

It was time to come up for air; to try to come to terms with what's happening in the world.

Rabbi Ira Flax, who heads Congregation Hesed Shel Emet, which shares the building with Bethel, asked each of us to read through the names of the 49 victims killed in an Orlando nightclub.

The name I read first was Luis Daniel Conde, 39.

Conde was murdered alongside his high school sweetheart, Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37.

The two met in high school in Puerto Rico, and ran a salon together in Kissimee, with Conde doing make-up and Velazquez styling their customers' hair.

Like most couples, I'm sure they had their ups and downs. It can be tough to work with your spouse.

Like any other couple, they were out, at Pulse nightclub, to celebrate a friend's birthday.

They were killed because they were in love.

They were killed, along with the 47 others and 53 injured, because they believed that they should be able to define love as they pleased and not have their feelings for each other defined, or judged, by others.

Omar Mateen, 29, wanted the world to believe he massacred the people in the nightclub because he was inspired by ISIS, the terrorist group in the Middle East partially responsible for the flood of Syrian refugees flowing into Europe.

But subsequent reporting suggests that Mateen himself was gay and was at Pulse because he had been with a Puerto Rican man whom he later learned was HIV positive.

Whatever the facts may ultimately turn out to be, and we may never know, one thing is for sure: Omar Mateen did not kill all those people because of love.

Whether he hated Puerto Ricans, or homosexuals, or hated himself because he was gay, it seems inescapably evident that he hated.

And his actions generated even more hate.

In the wake of the shootings, there was the immediate Islamaphobic reaction; followed by the pastor who said the gay victims deserved to die; and the painfully misguided people from Westboro Baptist Church defiling the victims' funerals.

Mateen may have used an assault weapon to kill, but the real danger we're facing today, the real weapon is hate; hate and fear, which are inextricably connected and self-consuming.

When you fear change, fear for your family, fear for your livelihood, you become angry at your inability to ensure their future and you for someone to blame.

And these days, there is no shortage of people providing helpful suggestions for who you should blame.

It's a short walk from blame to hate.

When your country or your neighborhood no longer feels familiar to you, its natural to fear that you no longer know your place in it.

The morning of Friday's prayer vigil in Pottstown, we learned about the stunning decision by British voters to leave the European Union, a self-destructive decision driven by the desire to "put Britain first."

Syrian refugees, Mexicans, Muslims, homosexuals, they all represent "otherness" in places with changing demographics, places with people who once "knew" that this country, or Britain, was a "white Christian nation."

I won't debate here whether we ever were, but even that perception no longer holds true, and that changing of the landscape is spreading fear, without which hate burns itself out.

But its harder to think of "the other" as different when they become individuals right before your eyes.

Individuals with their own lives, their own loves, their own names; individuals who, at their most basic, are no different from you.

Luis Daniel Conde, may have been from Puerto Rico, gay and a person who liked loud music -- three things I most definitely am not.

But he was a human being no different from me in that he had the same right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as any of us and he did not deserve to die.

Luis Daniel Conde was killed not because of who he was, but because of what he represented.

And until we can learn to stop blindly hating anything or anyone who is different or unfamiliar, it's never going to stop.


  1. Thought provoking and poignant Evan.

  2. Thought provoking and poignant Evan.