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When God seems silent: Communities make sense of tragedy through love and togetherness

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Thousands attend a vigil on Monday, June 13, 2016 at Los Angeles City Hall memorializing those who died in Sunday's attack in Orlando.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Thousands attend a vigil on Monday, June 13, 2016 at Los Angeles City Hall memorializing those who died in Sunday's attack in Orlando.

As Americans drift away from organized religion, universal tenets like fellowship, reconciliation and faith continue to hold a central place in our lives — especially in the wake of tragedies.

Vigils and services have been held across the country this week in remembrance of the 49 people killed in the Orlando shooting on Sunday. 

As candles blow in the breeze, and placards call for peace, the spectacle bears a striking resemblance to a service one might see in a house of worship.

When a gathering doesn't name a higher power, however, in what or whom do people place their faith? 

For answers, Take Two spoke to Brie Loskota, executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. 

There have been many religious services after the shooting last Sunday. There have also been vigils where no one faith is mentioned, but they look a lot like something you'd see at a church, or a temple, or a mosque. How would you describe those particular gatherings?

I think in any gathering you’d think about them as ritual moments where communities are trying to make collective sense of what it means to be them. What are their core values? What it means to be human, to place some context around the suffering that has taken place and to give hope and transformation to the people who have to continue to move forward and live. 

The reason that we see groups coming together is because communities and individuals need meaning, and rituals provide a way to affirm the core values and the things that were lost in the violence that they’re mourning. 

Is that it for the individual typically? Because what happened is senseless, I’m trying to find some sense in this world?

Meaning and healing. There’s no way to think about how you move forward with trauma if you don’t think about collective healing. Healing only happens — really — in a community. 

Trauma research will tell you that when people gather together to counter violence and when people gather together to mourn, it’s the gathering together that helps people overcome trauma. If we think about it in spiritual terms, it has an important way for us to reconcile what happens in the world with who we think we are. 

What are some of the key themes that stand out to you when you see these gatherings?

Love. Overwhelmingly, it’s people with an outpouring of love. The idea that we can overcome hate with love — I think — transcends every religious tradition and every system of making meaning in the world. 

People want to feel loved and affirmed because of who they are. It deisolates people. Sadness, depression: all of these things are made worse when people are alone. So this creates an occasion for people who — maybe — live their lives quite a bit alone, who maybe don’t have communities and support to come together and be affirmed as part of a collective because they showed up. 

It’s a very hard thing to grapple with the notion, ‘how do we do this to us?’ How do people do this to other people? And the only real answer that people can come up with is [to remind themselves that] there are so many more people who believe in the transcendent powers of love and forgiveness and healing and community and making the world a better place. 

Sunday's tragedy was a major blow to Orlando's LGBTQ community. It was an act committed by a man who claimed to be a follower of Islam. These are two groups of people who this nation has had a long and rocky history with. As we move forward, and people turn to their communities or their individual faiths to cope, what advice would you give?

The first is to recognize that the Muslim community and the LGBT community for many people are one and the same, and those people are uniquely hurting right now as well.  

For myself, what I’ve done to tap into a sense of compassion, I just went into my box of cards, and I pulled one out and wrote it to the community of Pulse. I just wrote them a condolence card. Imagine what it would be like if the community of Pulse — the community where this all happened — if they got ten cards, one-hundred cards, one-thousand cards for every bullet that was fired in hate. So perhaps those small acts of affirmation will be the fuel that propels us to make society better. 

Press the blue play button above to hear the full interview. 

If you would like to send a letter to Pulse, address them to:

1912 S Orange Ave, Orlando, FL 32806

(Answers have been edited for clarity.)

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