Nearly 150 people came together Monday night in Topeka for a showing of support for the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando, Fla.
The candlelight vigil was organized by LGBT-rights activists who feel the gunman’s choice of target – a gay nightclub – highlights the discrimination they’re faced with on a daily basis. Attendees gathered at the corner of 10th and Gage to listen to a diverse group of speakers whose only hope was to provide a beacon of light in a dark time.
Stephanie Mott, an activist with Equality Kansas and the driving force behind the event, led the call for solidarity. As she looked out at the crowd, Mott said she was amazed at the turnout to an event put together in the hours following the shooting.
“What an amazing response this is to speak about love in the face of hate,” a visibly emotional Mott said. “To see this amazing outpouring of love, compassion and kindness absolutely blows me away.”
Topeka Police Chief James Brown was on hand at the event. Brown praised Mott’s ongoing efforts to unite the Topeka community and show those in attendance that they have the full support of the police department.
After the vigil, the chief said that the turnout says a lot about the character of the Topeka community.
“This truly is a community that embraces each other,” Brown said. “It was great to see our friends from the Jewish community, the Muslim community and just everybody – gay and straight – come together to be a part of what’s going on here and loving and embracing one another.”
Imam Omar Hazim with the Islamic Center of Topeka took the microphone to remind people that the actions of gunman Omar Mateen, an American born Muslim who reportedly pledged his allegiance to ISIS prior to the shooting, should not be taken as reflection of all members of this faith.
“We believe that all life is sacred and all life should be respected and honored,” Hazim said. “None of us have the authority and power to take the life of someone else. The Holy Quran tells us that if you take a life unjustifiably – an innocent life – then you have taken the lives of all humanity. If you kill an individual because they lead a certain lifestyle, then you have killed everyone who lives that lifestyle.”
Reverend Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan with Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka told the crowd she understands how pain and sorrow can reach well beyond those communities that experience the violence first-hand. And that pain can resurface every time another tragedy occurs.
“That’s how violence functions,” the Reverend said. “It functions to recreate pain over and over again for us. I want you to know in this community there are a number of people here to take care of and help you and you should reach out if you’re finding this to be a painful situation.”
Oglesby-Dunegan then invited attendees to join her in a song meant to drown out the noise from a small pocket of protestors camped out across the street.
Between speakers, various attendees took turns reading the names of the 49 people killed in the shooting. The readers were surrounded by the crowd of mourners who stood with their heads down in solemn and silent tribute.
Topeka resident and activist Mary Akerstrom says she came to vigil to help raise awareness about the need to educate today’s youth, who often struggle with their own identity while being bombarded by a tidal wave of conflicting ideals from influential figures.
“Too many young people are getting mixed messages from church leaders and community leaders,” Akerstrom said. “There’s such a strong divide between fear and love that a lot of kids growing up aren’t sure what to understand or what truth is anymore. It’s a lot easier to grab a gun and shoot the people they think they’re mad at rather than sit down and discuss any issue we may disagree on.”
Akerstom also hopes that the vigil will lead to more discussion about gun laws, especially when groups already fighting against discrimination become caught in the line of fire.
For Dan Brennan, director of the Equality House in Topeka, conversations about the mass shooting should be focused on more than religious extremism and gun laws.
“This is more about a person who was unhappy with his own life. He wanted a way out and took the coward’s way out,” Brennan said. “That’s the way I’ve got to look at it. For me to cope, I’ve got to believe that he had a problem and took it out on others.”
Before the vigil ended, candles were lit and the sidewalk that runs along the west side of Gage Boulevard was lined with people holding signs that displayed messages of support for the victims in Orlando and pleas to end the violence that has become all too common in America today.
Drivers honked and cheered as they drove by and Mott could be seen sitting in the background, smiling at the camaraderie on display before her.
“We came together because 103 people had their lives changed in ways that could never be regained,” Mott said. “We stood on the corner and we said ‘love.’ We didn’t worry about what somebody might think. We didn’t worry about what somebody might say. We came together and we said ‘love.’ And we said it loudly.”
Video footage from Monday night’s vigil