SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — On Tuesday, June 14, hundreds of residents from South Orange, Maplewood and the surrounding area joined political leaders, members of the clergy and activist groups in a vigil outside the South Orange Fire Department Headquarters to show support for the city of Orlando, Fla., and all affected by the June 12 shootings there.
Attendees of all ages, faiths and backgrounds gathered early for the event, offering one another solace as they visited a memorial in the Sloan Street gazebo and accepted candles, which they held up throughout the ceremony in remembrance of the 49 killed and 53 injured during the gunman’s rampage at Pulse nightclub last week.
The evening began with a brief introduction by village President Sheena Collum, after which the Rev. Sandye Wilson from the Episcopal Church of Saint Andrew and Holy Communion in South Orange welcomed all to the event.
“Tonight, we remember the lovers, the dreamers, the young people whose lives were snuffed out, the ones who were injured and the circles of connection that connect us to our brothers and sisters in Orlando and around the world,” Wilson said.
“I am so proud and pleased to be standing in this community,” she continued, “because we will not be silent, because we do care about things that matter and because we know that love will overcome hate.”
After Wilson’s powerful opening remarks, Cantor Erica Lippitz of Temple Oheb Shalom in South Orange led everyone in singing the solemn “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
Next, Maplewood Mayor Victor Deluca addressed the crowd with passionate and emotional words, lamenting prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the United States and called for U.S. Congress to ban assault weapons. Deluca concluded by challenging the SOMA community and the nation as a whole to effect real change.
“As we leave here tonight, let us pledge that this is the first step in all the struggles that we face. Let us pledge, let us commit to working shoulder-to-shoulder with those across this land against the hatred and bigotry that we saw expressed in Orlando. Our hearts, our prayers, our thoughts are with the victims, with the wounded and with the families. May we work together as a nation to solve this problem, to give dignity to our LGBT brothers and sisters and to work for peace and justice across this land,” he said.
Deluca’s speech was followed by the reading of the names and ages of the 49 victims. As members of the Seton Hall Student Government Association read each name aloud, the crowd remained respectfully silent. Clergy members struck a “singing bowl” after each name, to solemnly mark the passing of each victim.
When the reading was complete, all the clergy members gathered around the podium, and several spoke.
The Rev. Brad Motta of Morrow Church in Maplewood spoke directly to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning community, saying “To our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, I want to say, ‘Hold your lover’s hand, trusting that this community will keep you safe. May your outward expression of love be seen as a sign of the trust that we hold within these communities.’ Tonight, as we gather here, let us celebrate the lives that the people have lost in this tragedy by living the love and joy they sought at Pulse last Saturday night. Let us honor them by continuing the work of being a community that celebrates diversity as a gift.”
Rabbi Dan Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel followed Morrow, saying, “In the shadow of the massacre in Orlando, let us not gloss over the fact that the vast majority of the victims were members of the LGBTQ community and the vast majority of the victims were people of color. They went to that club to share an evening in a place where they did not need to explain themselves to anyone — not that they should ever have to — a place where they could celebrate the fact that they are and were indeed created in that image of God. And rather than find a safe space, they encountered the opposite. Our world is a darker place today because of it. Let our presence here bring renewed light into this world.”
Finally, Ashraf Latif, chairman and president of the National Islamic Association and Community Center in Newark and a 20-year resident of South Orange, shared his thoughts and condolences. In his speech he assured the crowd, “Islam does not affiliate itself with this kind of violence. There is not a single sound religious tradition that allows it, let alone advocates for such indiscriminate killing.
“Today, all of mankind is hurt. We share in your sorrow. This is our sorrow. As we come together today, this evening, as brothers and sisters, we pray for justice, we pray for unity, we pray for patience. Let us all pray for peace in our nation.”
The religious leaders were followed by a second musical tribute, with members of the New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus singing “For the Fallen” to honor the victims as more than a few tears were shed in the audience and many in the crowd held onto one another for support.
After the chorus sang, there were speeches demanding action and change delivered by C.J. Prince and Jan Kaminsky of North Jersey Pride, and by Resha Ketkar of the group Moms Demand Action. Collum then returned to the podium, urging South Orange-Maplewood residents to speak out, to take action and to keep things in perspective.
“If there is any lesson learned, I think whatever grudges we have, the small things we get caught up on, make sure the people that matter most to you in this world know every single day how important they are to you,” Collum advised, as the crowd responded enthusiastically.
Following Collum’s closing remarks, all present were led by Lippitz, Gary Wright of the African-American Office of Gay Concerns and Cantor Rebecca Moses of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in a rousing rendition of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Hundreds of voices filled the air, singing every verse. After the vigil concluded, everyone gathered for the vigil wrote messages of love, support and solidarity on a large banner proclaiming “We Are Orlando.” The banner has been sent to the city of Orlando on behalf of the South Orange-Maplewood community.
Photos by Cynthia Burks