Two nights ago I attended a candlelight vigil, I had received a text message about it earlier in the day and knew only that a man had been beaten. The text cam from my husband who had heard about this through his volunteer/community ties. From the context of the message I received I suspected hate of some form had to with the beating. I did not have much to go on, but I was moved enough to go to the vigil, and to wear my vestments, although no one had asked me to.
When I arrived at the vigil it was a small gathering and this surprised me, but not for long. I soon found the “organizer” of the event and spoke with him. It turns out that the man who had been beaten, Jason, had been living in a local canyon and someone had beaten him in the head with a rock. No words were said at the vigil no statements made or prayers pronounced. Rather people stood around and talked quietly with others that they knew as they held candles, while Jason fought for his life in the hospital. Many the people gathered knew Jason, some were from the local GLBT community. It was simply a gathering of solidarity.
Shortly after I arrived I was approached by a man in a collar. Turns out this man who spoke with me was a gay Independent American Catholic priest who had left the Roman Catholic Church disheartened by what appeared to be the Catholic Church’s refusal or inability to protect victims of the sexual abuse scandal. The priest reported to me that he was there because he knew Jason; the priest explained that he had met Jason while teaching in the local community. Both the priest and I were there simply to show our solidarity with the victim of this senseless crime and his chosen family, as Jason lay in a hospital bed, reportedly, with a very poor prognosis. We were there to provide presence to those who had gathered; all those who had gathered had gathered to be present.
Later in the evening a group of people came out of the hospital and physically leaned on some of those who had gathered for the vigil. They were Jason’s chosen family. One of the women in this group spoke with me and thanked me for being there. I did not do anything, but I was there. It was a reminder for me of how powerful our simple presence can be for others in time of crises.
So what about the vestments? I thought about this, particularly as the media came in and took pictures of the gathering. It may seem presumptuous, and perhaps it could be seen as such. At moments I felt a bit odd standing there, holding a candle in my clergy robe. But it was not presumptuous. It was not presumptuous because in many ways this event was the parable of the good Samaritan made real in the contemporary context. Here was a man and his extended community in crises and of course it was the role of the clergy to stop and bear witness to the pain of the other in crises. I was not there to fix anything I could not do that. But I could bear witness.
That is not the only reason I was there, though. We live in a society of great violence and marginalization of the poor, the GLBT community, the disability community, those who live with mental illness, those who struggle with addiction or propensity toward violence, and anyone else who steps beyond our norms. The truth is I do not know if Jason belonged to any of these categories expect being poor–he was living in the canyon. I do know, however, that we can not continue to accept senseless and extreme violence toward others within our community and continue to consider our society civilized, period. So I wore my vestments to show that God is with all who suffer, and that the marginalized are noticed by the communities who seek to bring God into the world. I wore my vestments, and I was there silently witnessing the suffering senseless violence perpetrates on its victims and on the community around the victims of violence. I did not offer to pray and I was not asked to pray; Jason’s family told the reporter who covered the “story” they were praying for his recovery. It was a gathering of presence and silent prayer. My prayer was one of peace not only for Jason, but for the community immediately around him, and our larger community that has become so fractured that such violence can occur without community uproar but rather be noted on the evening news before we all tuck into bed for a brief night’s sleep. God help us all.