On the drive to the hotel to check in, I was writing a list. It was a list of names of the 49 people killed at Pulse. I’d lingered over each face in all the photos. I’d read and cried over as many stories as I could. In them I read my friends, my people. Writing them out was a prayerful practice of love, grief, and remembrance. It was the beginning of our 86-hour vigil to #KeepPulseAlive in the face of the National Religious Broadcasters, a primary tentpole in the architecture of the Christian right.
Soulforce came to hold vigil during the NRB conference both for the victims of the Pulse massacre and to resist spiritual violence against queer and trans people everywhere. While the NRB and other media-makers like it try to pinkwash Islamophobia by pitting the LGBTQI community against Islam, we know its volume and reach to Christian communicators are to blame; this violent homophobic and transphobic rhetoric of Christian supremacist groups makes us targets for violence.
So, armed with hundreds of paper and wooden doves decorated by supporters from around the country, we arrived to remind NRB members that they were on holy ground and they had the blood of our people on their hands. Our objective was to show up in song and protest at their opening plenary and to set up our Living Altar of Resistance with doves and other holy elements. Our round-the-clock vigil, centered on our altar, was meant to defy the NRB’s audacity at holdng its conference here of all places and now of all times.
Soulforce director Haven Herrin returned from checking into our hotel room with news that the place was swarming with security. The heavy security dragnet tracked us throughout the hotel, and they made it clear that they had read up on us online.
We huddled with local leaders from Joy Metropolitan Community Church and longtime Soulforce members in our room to make a creative pivot. It was time to play subtle for the long game so we could stay inside the event for as long as possible. What NRB members expected from us was an aggressive disruption, and they weren’t wrong in their suspicion. If being big and loud would threaten our primary objective to vigil at our altar, then our best opening move was to stay under the radar — for now.
As the opening session began, we filed through the lobby quietly, two by two. We knew that this silent display of hand-holding tenderness and joy would ruffle feathers, but it wasn’t the wild display that the NRB clearly feared. Singing “We Are a Gentle, Angry People” to a soft drumbeat, Rev. Alba Onofrio led our processional out of the hotel and along the driveway in the direction of public property that the hotel had pointed out as an acceptable location for us.
All of this care proved futile. A dozen security personnel followed us closely as we walked, and after we passed the windows looking in on the NRB space — with a sidewalk and a parking lot between us and the event space — Marriott security and police intercepted us and told us we were trespassing and would be arrested if we did not leave immediatelh.
Ironically, they made us enter the conference event space to write us our trespassing notices. Using that liminal space of following their orders while coming into close quarters with our adversaries, we sang loudly and finally unfurled our banners. Though it was precisely the kind of defiance that they’d aimed to suppress, the police put us right in the center of the conference venue.
As hotel security documented our faces and names before ejecting us permanently, Rev. Alba Onofrio and I, the final two of our group, refused to comply with removal. We’d had enough; as Alba once declared during our planning, “We will hold vigil at this hotel or we will hold vigil in a jail cell.”
We marched into the atrium, where our voices would be amplified. We thrust our clenched fists in the air and got about two rounds of “No justice! No peace!” in before we were cuffed. Later, it turned out that our surprisingly accurate police report listed our arrestable action as “clasp[ing] hands in defiance.”
Going to jail is always awful. Being incarcerated is hell and inhumane, regardless of the reason or duration. I don’t take for granted the danger that lurks in a jail cell for me as a black queer person, nor the privilege that allows me to choose the conditions of my arrest and the assurance that I will be freed as quickly as possible.
That said, arrest in civil disobedience is for me, as it is for Soulforce, one of the most embodied acts of resistance to power imaginable. It is literally declaring with your body your noncompliance with forces much more powerful than you. It is refusing to submit to being moved, removed, or directed against your will.
Even though they tried to remove us from inside the hotel, several of their guests noticed and shared their support and tears with us. As Joy MCC Pastor Terri told her congregation as she reflected on their past year mourning and healing over the Pulse massacre, “Hate tried, but love always wins.”
Throughout the night, my prayers and thoughts returned to that list of 49 names I’d written out earlier, and to all the details, tiny and enormous, invoked therein. Details of familiar names and memorialized selfies. Thumping music and the embodied joy of a night at the club before it’s cut short by a staccato of hatred. Sunlight through palm fronds that 49 pairs of eyes would never see. These details accompanied me from the moment we showed up at the Marriott World Center Hotel, through the uncomfortable ride in the cruiser, and under the harsh fluorescence of a holding cell. I was holding vigil regardless.
The Pulse tragedy is pervasive for the residents of Orlando. Over and over again, we were reminded that everyone was touched in some way by the trauma. From the officers who arrested us, to the officers who booked us, and the other inmates who asked what we — Rev. Alba in their clergy collar and both of us wearing stoles — were “in for,” there was a similar, palpable shift when we shared what we were doing and why.
There was the same consternation and sad head-shaking when we described who our adversaries are — a group of multimillion-dollar corporations, pastors, and talking heads whose rhetoric had included castigation of the very people who’d died that night.
For Soulforce, we are clear that we are guests in the work of holding vigil, in the public acts of love, grief, and remembrance, and in the daily defiance of forces that want to silence the brilliance of LGBTQI people’s commitment to one another, our humanity, and our sacredness. We are clear that we held vigil along with a community that is keeping #OrlandoStrong and will persist in doing so. They have our unyielding love and support in that effort, always.
D.J. HUDSON is a queer womanist activist, community organizer, and Soulforce's nonviolence and direct action consultant. Born and raised in Georgia, D.J. moved to Nashville in 2006 to attend college and loved it so much that she has yet to leave. A proud lifelong Southerner, D. J. takes her greatest inspiration from Southern black women like her mama, her aunties, and her ancestors. She is also really inspired by the history of Southern people’s movements, the works of Alice Walker, Octavia Butler, and Zora Neale Hurston, and being a big ol’ sci-fi and fantasy nerd who is forever dreaming of new worlds and defeating evil once and for all.