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Emory gathers to remember victims of Orlando attack

Amid soft piano music and muffled tears, 49 names rang out from around Cannon Chapel as the Emory community gathered Tuesday to mourn the victims of the Orlando massacre, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

As the names were read by volunteers in the chapel balconies, a video screen displayed photos of each individual, the smiling selfies providing a poignant reminder that the victims were struck down during what should have been a night of fun and solidarity at Pulse, an LGBT nightclub that was hosting its popular Latin night when the killer opened fire.

President Obama called the June 13 shooting both an act of terrorism and a hate crime, and speakers at Emory's gathering not only remembered the dead, but called for systemic change.

"To think that the killer's beliefs and hatred came into existence in a vacuum, without reinforcement and encouragement, is to deny systems and institutions of oppression that perpetuate and condone violence," Danielle Steele told attendees at the gathering, which was co-sponsored by Emory’s Office of Spiritual and Religious Life and two Campus Life offices — the Office of LGBT Life and Multicultural Programs and Services.

Steele, director of the Office of LGBT Life, noted that it has been almost a year since the Emory community came together to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court's decision allowing same-sex couples to marry around the country.

"As so many marginalized communities have experienced before, each step towards justice comes with the risk of backlash," she said. "To deny that the recent victories of the LGBT community have brought retaliation ignores the ongoing struggle that so many LGBT people engage in every day."

"This wasn't Islam"

Noureen Shallwani, a senior in Emory College and recent executive board member for the Emory Muslim Students Association, spoke of how she and her Muslim peers found the attack "truly shocking" and incomprehensible, leaving them to grapple with what to do and how to get involved.

"God has created all different types of people — from different backgrounds, from different races, of different religions, of different orientations — not so that we can do violence upon one another, but so we may know one another, so we may embrace one another and learn more about God's creation," she said.

"That is what my religion has taught me," Shallwani continued, stressing, "What transpired is not part of my faith at all. This wasn't Islam."

DeLa Sweeney, assistant director for Multicultural Programs and Services, described being unable to consider the attack outside of personal experiences — as a student affairs professional, a counselor, a person of color and someone who identifies as gender queer, but also as someone with privileges including economic stability and health insurance.

 "As a community, while we honor the victims and stand in solidarity with the families, friends and community, and grieve for ourselves, I hope we continue to transform both ourselves and our societies," Sweeney said.

"Because love wins"

As volunteers prepared to read the names of the deceased and light candles for each, Ellen Purdum, assistant dean for student life and spiritual formation in Candler School of Theology, called upon those in attendance to remember them as individuals with vibrant lives cut short.

"Names matter because of their particularity, the particularity that points to the unique mystery of every human life," she said.

With the nearly hour-long program of words and music drawing to a close, Lisa Garvin, associate dean of the chapel and religious life, offered a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it — always."

"We have gathered here to be strengthened in community to do the hard work of justice and compassion," she said.

"We have gathered here because love wins."

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