At times angry and at other times reflective, a crowd approaching 100 people held a candlelight vigil on the lawn of Grace United Methodist Church on Sunday evening to remember and honor the victims of Sunday morning’s mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
“While I am incredibly saddened by the violence, I am angry, too. I want to scream and rally to protest, and I probably will, but not today,” said Liz Welch, LGBT advocacy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union in Montana. “Today, in this space, I want to call us to love and to justice, because it’s so easy to get drawn into the hateful rhetoric that’s coming.”
The vigil, sponsored by Not in Our Town Billings, drew elected officials, Billings-area clergy, members of Billings' lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and their allies.
“Love is love, and that’s the way it should be,” said Vickie Ann Davis, who attended the vigil with her transgender son and her rescue dog August, who was sporting a series of leis in a rainbow array. “We are here to support all who lost their children today.”
Welch said she’s been traveling to oppose bills that would limit the rights of the LGBT community, “and in many hearing rooms, I have heard people say that my friends don’t deserve to have their rights recognized. In every state I’ve visited, I’ve heard people say that what happened in Orlando needs to happen.”
“To honor the dead,” she suggested, “let’s protect the living against any further assaults of mind, body and spirit.”
“Take every opportunity to offer prayers and thoughts,” she said, “but also take action and offer sanctuary. Let’s create spaces where safety exists.”
She called on attendees to donate blood or plasma on Monday — unless they’re gay, because some blood banks restrict gay donors.
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“You will literally be saving lives" by donating, she said.
“All of us want to know why, and who is to blame" for the shooting, said Dan Mehrens-Wallace, noting that the gunman reportedly became angry when he saw two men kissing, “just like I kiss my husband every day.”
Islam is not to blame for the nation’s largest gun massacre, he said. “I promise you," he said, "nothing could be further from the truth.”
To those who would say the shooting is some form of divine retribution for “sinners practicing an abomination that is worthy of their death,” Mehrens-Wallace told the crowd, “this evening we are given the opportunity to send a stronger message, a message of love not fear, dignity not hate. We must write a new narrative for our world, one where all are worthy of dignity and protection, because we all are children of God, loved and adored by God.”
“We must commit to fight this,” he said. “It is killings us, and it is killing our kids.”
Near the conclusion of the 30-minute ceremony, attendees lighted candles and sang “Imagine” and “We Shall Overcome.” Many wrapped their arms around one another as they sang.
“As a member of the LGBT community, it is meaningful to see allies willing to stand with us,” said Marty Elizabeth Ortiz, board chair of Not in Our Town Billings. “Not in Our Town historically has always stood with victims, and that’s what we do today. There are many who stand with us, even against legislation that threatens us every day.”
Candlelight vigils were also held in cities across the state, including Bozeman, Helena, Great Falls and Missoula.