Pastor William H. Lamar IV and 11 other Christian leaders were interviewed by Faith & Leadership about their responses to the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting. Pastor Lamar’s interview is reprinted below. You can read the full article at https://www.faithandleadership.com/there-gospel-preach-here-christian-leaders-respond-orlando-shooting
The Rev. William H. Lamar IV
Pastor, Metropolitan AME Church, Washington, D.C.
What did you do as a pastoral leader after hearing about the Orlando shooting? How did you respond?
I had the radio on, which I do every morning, and heard about it on the news. Normally, on a Sunday, when I hear about an event or tragedy like that, I write myself a note to mention it during the service, but I didn’t do that.
I had so much that Sunday, so many people asking me to introduce and announce stuff, that it got lost in the shuffle and I forgot to mention it at the 7:45 a.m. service. But I did at the 11 a.m. service, and had a moment of silence.
This happened right at the beginning of a week when we were already preparing to mark another painful and traumatic event, the slayings of the Charleston Nine at Emanuel AME Church. So clearly, to me, I thought we needed to position the events in Orlando as more of the kind of violence that we have to stop.
So we folded it into our plans commemorating the Charleston Nine, essentially adding the grief and pain of Orlando to what we were already marking.
We included the victims of the Orlando massacre in our prayer vigil in remembrance of the Emanuel Nine (link is external) that we held on Friday, June 17. We memorialized the victims with a multimedia presentation anchored by images both painful and beautiful. It was an ecumenical service, with clergy from Catholic and Jewish traditions joining us in praying for peace, understanding and an end to violence against lesbians, gays and transgender folk.
At the vigil, and in a sermon (link is external) the following Sunday, June 19, I was very clear about the church’s responsibility to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and that they are part of God’s house and God’s people. That’s not really an extraordinary message for our people.
There has been a long line of violence against gay persons in their sanctuaries, nightclubs and other places. I wanted to make sure we contextualize it, that it was all part of this long history.
The vigil on Friday went extraordinarily well. And it was all still very fresh with the sermon on Sunday morning. I told them that it was easy to think Orlando had nothing to do with Metropolitan AME, but that we were connected to it. Among the people who were killed was one person who graduated from the same university I did, Florida A&M, and another was related to an AME clergyperson in South Carolina.
What resources did you turn to for help?
For me, to be honest, it’s my own imagination and my own wrestling with Scripture. I’m asking a theological question. My first question as preacher is always, “What does it have to do with God?” And for the text on June 19, it had to do with the soldier piercing Jesus’ side with a spear, John 19:34-35 (link is external). It has to do with piercing or binding, piercing or binding wounds.
My job is to view it theologically. It’s what I’m always thinking about. My primary resource was my typical lens through which I view the world: “What does this have to do with God?”
Even the anthropological questions are theological. Whenever something happens to a human being, it happens to God. So it’s theological.
The news, when you look at it, is always, “This thing happened to these people — why them?” And that’s all true. But for the church, it has to be bound up with theological questions and what God has to say and do.
So I’m leading and thinking about where this intersects with history, with current events, with Scripture and theology. So it’s not necessarily a book or website that I turn to but a way of being in the world that opens eyes and ears and hearts about what happened.
One of the biggest problems in news reporting is that the news is reported out of historical context, as though it just happened for the first time. But the first thing is that, with Orlando, this has happened many times, to gay bodies, to trans bodies. And cutting off the context gives us a pass on doing the work we need to do to keep it from happening again. Policy changes become impossible because political leaders don’t situate events historically.
The church, though, is a place of memory. It says at our table, “Do this in remembrance of me.” If the church can’t or doesn’t remember, it can’t be church. So part of our task is to put these events in context.
What message did you share with your congregation or community? How did you discern that message?
The basic message was that we are all made in the image of God, the imago Dei. And that by becoming human, God has made human beings divine, in a sense. The injury of any human being is injury to the divine. What I try to do is give people theological resources to view what happened so they can stand in opposition to it.
How do you encourage dialogue about divisive cultural issues? How does one lead in times of such great partisan divides?
We exist always in the crucible of social change and the awareness of injustice in America. African Methodism was born in the midst of such shifting sands. What happened in Orlando and Charleston is not anomalous. It is not new.
What happened was American violence. This violence will not abate until this nation does the hard work of truth telling and justice seeking. We preach and work always so that tolerance will be replaced by justice — a fair and equitable distribution of resources and opportunities in the United States of America.
As for leading in a time of partisan divide and encouraging dialogue about divisive issues, I think that’s bull. America is not a nation that is interested in the work of justice.
This isn’t partisan; it’s not Democrats or Republicans. Until the nation is interested in justice, that’s what it will cost. The partisan question is pedestrian. The question isn’t about leading in a time of partisanship. The question is whether the nation will do the work to do justice.
And so far, the answer seems to be no.
What I do with that, I’m clear Sunday after Sunday. Our church is overwhelmingly Democrats. Many are government officials, political appointees. I tell them, Democrats or Republicans, we can’t look to either one for justice. We can look to them to do whatever is necessary to have political power. I’m not looking to cross partisan divides. I’m looking for justice.
I think we’re clear there are different worldviews, and I’m going to be uncompromising. I’ll talk to you if you believe people are made in the image of God. You can’t have discussion without certain givens. Do you believe all people are made in the image of God? Do you believe everyone deserves food to eat, shelter, quality education, to be treated as a human being?
If you don’t believe those things, then we can’t have a rational conversation.
Would I extend an olive branch to others? Definitely. I see them as humans, made in the image of God. But if people aren’t serious about having the conversation, what can you do?