Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Bryan Fulwider: Faith After Pulse

This post discusses the shooting that took place at the Pulse Nightclub on June 12, 2016. It contains difficult content, so please do not read on if you feel you may be effected. 

This article and sketch have been posted with the express written permission of the interviewee. Analog Artist Digital World takes the privacy and wishes of individuals very seriously. 

This post summarizes Bryan Fulwider's responses during an interview. On the day after the Las Vegas Harvest Festival mass shooting, Reverend Bryan Fulwider, one of the Three Wise Guys on NPR's Friends Talking Faith spoke about his experiences following the Pulse Nightclub massacre here in Orlando. He mentioned Thomas Lynch, a poet, writer and mortician who said, "There is nothing like death to cause people to press their noses up against the windows of their faith." This is the reality that can cause us to ask the ultimate questions like, why am I here? What is life all about? What happens when I die? In every religion there is some idea of death and what it means. They all seem to conclude that death is not the end. There is always hope built into the reality of death. Life is not meaningless.

That person who perpetuated that heinous act in Las Vegas, if they ever made any meaningful contribution to society, that no longer matters. You think about how you live your life, and the things you do and you would hope that the sum total at the end would contribute positively to the world. These acts of barbarism, and viciousness and hate simply erase an individual. In all traditional religions it sends you straight to hell. Maybe hell for those who don't believe, is simply to cease to exist. We don't use the name of the Pulse shooter in our community. He is not a person of consequence. He is not worth remembering as a person. That is the sad reality if your life ends in treachery.

Bryan was called to the Winter Park First Congregational Church in 1999. It was not yet an open and affirming congregation but it was welcoming. Before he left, it became open and affirming to the LGBTQ community. In 2012 he made the transition out of local church ministry into a broader community ministry. Together with Imam Muhammad Musri, and Rabbi Steve Engel, he helped found Building Us which now houses the Interfaith Counsel of Central Florida. They also started the radio show Friends Talking Faith. 

When discussing the rights of women there is an across the board understanding among religions that women should have basic human rights. They stand pretty much unanimously against policies that are anti-women. While they may not all agree about reproductive health issues, they do agree that woman should be treated with respect and that they have the right to their own decisions.

On June 11, 2016 the Three Wise Guys were getting ready for a show the next day where they would visit a Turkish family for their Iftar dinner, which is the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset. On June 12, he got up early, around 5 am, and was getting ready for a sermon at the Unitarian Church. He rotated out of bed and put his feet on the floor and immediately picked up his phone to see if there were any important messages. The Pulse news flashes lit up his cell phone screen. He subscribes to the New York Times and they were reporting about a shooting at an Orlando club. He was immediately on high alert. He wondered if there might be someone there that he knew. The reports at that point were very sketchy. The siege had just ended and they were rushing people to hospitals. He immediately texted half a dozen friends who might have been there. Little by little he got responses back that they were waiting to hear from others they had not heard from yet.

He could not fathom all that had occurred. By the time worship started at 10 that morning, the report was that 20 had died and a number injured. The sermon became all about Pulse. His phone was on the pulpit next to him. As the worship ended, a news report confirmed that 50 had died. They included the shooter in that number. Disbelief prevailed. He was shocked and stunned and could not process the news. As that news sank in there was a pall over the congregation. 

The Three Wise Guys debated whether they should go to the recording session at the Turkish home that night, but the family had prepared, and were planning for them to be there. The Imam had been out in the hot sun all day because he had been called immediately when the shooter was identified as being from the Islamic community. Bryan drove down after church but felt there was nothing to be done. Later he realized he should have driven to the hospital. He doesn't speak fluid Spanish but he could have gotten by. Perhaps the shock kept him from thinking about that. People were bereft, not knowing if loved ones were there or not, alive or dead. The whole day was a blur.

After sun down the three men went to the Turkish family home for Iftar. All the conversation that night was about what happened at Pulse. There was a prevailing feeling of depression, the small children thankfully did not understand. All the adults were somber. There had already been some kind of call for harm to the Islamic community because of the shooter. Candidate Trump was focusing on the shooting as an act of terrorism. Yet this kid was born in Queens not far from where Trump grew up. Like Las Vegas this was domestic terrorism. 

That night the 3 wise guys shot a video offering condolences, sympathy, love, and compassion for the community. There was so little that could be said other than to be a sign of hope in a very dark and uncertain time. The community quickly decided that we will not be defined by the hatred that this act represents. We will define ourselves by love, by compassion and by embracing one another. The LBGBTQ community was opening a dialogue to remind people who was most affected by this. It was the beautiful, full of life youth who had been dancing there that night. The community began to stand together rather than allow itself to be torn apart.

A radio show was recorded and ready to air the week after Pulse. Bryan called the executive producer and asked them to not run the pre-recorded show. He wanted the show to be recorded live so they could address what had happened. The Rabbi was leaving for Tel Aviv, but he was ready to call in. Michael Farmer from Equality Florida, and Reverend Kathy Schmitz from First Union Church joined Bryan and Imam Musri in the studio. The show was broadcast state wide. It was a raw program with people trying to make sense of the unfathomable. It was a chance to grieve together, think together, and to call for a community of love and compassion.

Bryan and the Imam opened the ceremonies at the Dr. Phillips Vigil. Someone from the Mayor's office called saying they really wanted everybody to rethink being there for security reasons. They could understand the concern for public safety, the police force was stretched thin at that point. The organizers pleaded, saying that we really needed to have this. People are hurting and they need to be together. The mayor's office said, "We will make it happen." They hoped to offer a bridge of faith and life, helping people find their way through the early hours of the aftermath. The vigil at Dr. Phillips was remarkably hopeful. Bryan took a photo from the stage of all the candle light going all the way back to City Hall. It was such a powerful moment of the community saying we will not give in to hate and violence.

Bryan and the Imam were also the religious presence at the 50,000 person vigil at Lake Eola. Joe Saunders called them to be a part in that vigil. A Muslim group was handing out water shoulder to shoulder with an LGBTQ group. The work of the media that week was well done and thoughtful. It opened up conversations like, who are the LatinX community, the LGBTQ community? The wise guys would lead the conversations. They reached out to families and survivors being sure to be non-intrusive, but being available. Every show on the radio for the next 3-4 weeks was Pulse related. Dan Kirshank who wrote, "The Bible Tells Me So" said that religion ran all through the Pulse shooting from the young people who were at the club, that might not be welcomed in their own religious communities, to the shooter who was identified as Muslim, to the preachers who may have had anti-LGBTQ sermons who now had to face their own bias. Promoting an anti0gay rhetoric in a house of faith is a bad idea. The horror of Pulse triggered the ongoing religious conversation and there is a lot of work to do. 

Bryan prays that, "We will not rest until we have put an end to this kind of unspeakable violence and this kind off violence is worn in our hearts, its worn in the way we think, and the way we think about others, its worn out of our own sense of self destruction, and the need to force that upon others. He  wishes that we would have an honest conversation in this country about gun violence and sensible gun legislation. And that we would have an honest conversation bout mental illness and about the things that need to happen if someone is teetering on the edge, and that we would have a continuing conversation with religious communities about how dangerous some of the rhetoric can be. If you are feeling isolated, depressed, lonely, come talk to us. We are here to help with the problems you are facing. If we don't address this continuing issue, in our society, and culture, we are going to be in ever deepening waters of trouble."

Post script: Bryan Fulwider was arrested on October 2, 2019 and booked into Seminole County Jail following an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor who reported being sexually battered by the pastor between 2005 and 2010 while he was in a position of authority at Winter Park First Congregational Church. He faces 30 counts of sexual battery of a person younger than 18 years old. Bail was set at $700,000. He committed suicide.

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