With candles raised, almost 200 members of the Alamance County community spoke in unison:
“Good is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death.”
As they uttered those words, the lights turned on in Life’s Journey United Church of Christ and thus concluded the vigil honoring the memory of the victims of the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando that claimed the lives of of 49 victims and injured at least 50 others.
The candlelight vigil was hosted June 14 by the church, Alamance Pride and the Alamance branch of the NAACP. A similar, yet more intimate gathering of 80 attendees was held June 13 in Elon University’s Gender & LGBTQIA Center.
At the Elon gathering, community members shared personal stories and worries in the wake of the tragedy. Matthew Antonio Bosch, director of the GLC, read aloud the names and ages of the victims. That part of the gathering stood out the most to Kim Lilienthal ’12, who came back to campus to attend the event.
“So many people commented about the youth of the people and how they could have been their friends or their kids at any club in the country,” she said.
At the Alamance County vigil, members of the congregation were joined by Elon students, faculty, and administration and the greater Alamance County community. They sat and listened to remarks from community leaders, sang hymns and lit candles for the victims.
Community leaders — including Ken Smith, vice president of Alamance Pride; the Rev. Ray Pollard, president of Alamance County PFLAG; Barrett Brown, president of the Alamance branch of the NAACP; Eric Kerns, assistant chief of the Burlington Police and Ian Baltutis, mayor of Burlington — spoke for more than an hour.
Offering encouragement and hope to community attendees, those who spoke left no doubt that leaders in the Alamance community stand together against hate and fear.
“We are in a majority that want peace and an inclusive community,” Baltutis said. “We must stay vigilant, and we must feel hope and optimism.”
Their remarks weren’t solely meant to comfort. Frustration and exhaustion, and even anger, characterized the many of the remarks of the civil and religious leaders present.
“I am angry, and I am tired,” the Rev. Phil Hardy said. “I am tired of being left with the knowledge that it will happen again.
“I am tired of helping my colleagues to plan prayer vigils because someone taught a child to hate and that hate bubbled into murder,” he added.
Hardy echoed the thoughts of many on Twitter when he lambasted politicians who provided empty condolences after passing discriminatory legislature. He said he is tired of public figures’ failure to realize their laws and sermons “give tacit approval to those whose thinking is the most damaged.”
Pollard also admonished public figures for their harmful messages.
“Shame on candidates who run on a platform of hate and exclusion,” he said, eliciting a strong “Amen” from many in the crowd.
Despite their frustration, Pollard, Hardy and the rest of the community leaders present encouraged attendees to embody hope, love and optimism in the face of senseless violence.
“It seems scary to hope because one day our hope will again be severely, severely disappointed,” Hardy said. “But we have to find the courage to hope.”
Shaher Sayed, prayer leader at Burlington Masjid, encouraged attendees to see both sides of a tragedy, to acknowledge violence and then to use it as a motivator to work against it together.
“If we whisper, no one is going to hear us,” he said. “But together, we’ll be very loud.”
In the spirit of working together to enact change, the NAACP provided practical tools for moving forward after the shooting. Volunteers at the organization’s booth provided a place to register to vote as attendees exited.
According to Smith, the organizations relied on the networks they’d set up on Facebook to promote the vigil.
“People look to the church, to the NAACP and to Pride for guidance,” he said. “We’re like the Three Musketeers on social media.”
Smith said this same strategy of using existing social networks was behind the success of Alamance County’s first Pride festival, hosted in fall 2014.
“We know our audience,” he said.
Lilienthal found out about the Elon gathering through the faculty and staff listserve, which could have contributed to the wide range of people present even though the event took place during the summer.
“I wasn't surprised at the number as much as I was the wide range of representation from different areas of campus,” Lilienthal said. “Faculty, staff, grad students, undergrad students, senior administrators were are there.”
Lilienthal said Elon has an important role in times of tragedy because of its influence in the greater community.
“We have to make sure it's a positive influence,” she said. “I think a big part of that is refusing to stop believing in our message of inclusivity even in times of hate or even though it could be easier and safer to back down.”