Sending a message: UNCW students, community speak out about Orlando shootings

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A gay pride flag draped over her, Shelia Melton listens, emotionally, to a spiritual at the conclusion of UNCW's vigil for the 49 killed and 53 injured in Sunday's attack on an Orlando nightclub. Photos by Hilary Snow.
A gay pride flag draped over her, Shelia Melton listens, emotionally, to a spiritual at the conclusion of UNCW’s vigil for the 49 killed and 53 injured in Sunday’s attack on an Orlando nightclub. Photos by Hilary Snow.

For Kimberly McLaughlin, it’s the color red.

For Jay Denton, it’s camaraderie, companionship, a simple coming together.

And for Shelia Melton, it’s a tough question that needs an answer.

However it is expressed, the three – along with dozens more – gathered at UNC-Wilmington Tuesday to send a collective message of solidarity in the wake of the brutal attack in Orlando early Sunday morning.

During a campus prayer vigil, UNCW students, faculty and staff, along with local residents, shared their sadness, grief, anger and hope in the wake of the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history.

“I wore red today on purpose,” McLaughlin, interim director of the university’s LGBTQIA Resource Office, told the crowd at UNCW’s amphitheater.

Many in attendance held lit candles during a time of silent reflection that lasted 49 seconds--one second for each life lost in the Orlando shootings.
Many in attendance held lighted candles during a time of silent reflection that lasted 49 seconds–one second for each life lost in the Orlando shootings.

While countless differences separate us, she continued, the blood that courses constant through our bodies connects us all.

“Our blood is red,” she said. “And it has been shed in Florida.”

The 29-year-old lone gunman who entered a gay nightclub took the lives of 49 people and injured 53 others at Pulse, a gay nightclub in the heart of the Florida metropolis before being killed by law enforcement.

Denton, a campus minister who heads the Reformed University Fellowship, said it was important to ensure that those who were killed still have a voice.

“You are here to speak. You are to speak just by your presence alone…We are all here to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves,” he said.

And rather than letting the victims be forever silenced, Denton said he had found some comfort in learning about who they were in life.

But, he added, it’s also okay to cry.

“It’s an appropriate response to weep and mourn when life is lost,” he said.

To that end, Denton called for a time of silence and reflection that lasted 49 seconds, one second for each person killed in the attack.

Having acknowledged the importance of voice – and in the theme of unity – Denton opened the vigil to those who wanted to stand up and share who they were standing with in this time of grief.

From the very back of the ampitheater, a tearful Melton told the crowd of dozens that it would take more than words and candles to stop the increasing instances of gun violence in the U.S.
From the very back of the ampitheater, a tearful Melton told the crowd of dozens that it would take more than words and candles to stop the increasing instances of gun violence in the U.S.

There were those who had a general stance of love and tolerance and those who showed their support for the families of victims. Some were poised to reflect more specifically: a former Disney World actress stood in solidarity with her family of cast members, some of whom were injured in the shootings and a veteran, with men and women who until recently had to hide their sexual orientation while serving their country.

When Melton rose to speak, gay pride flag in hand, it was to raise awareness of an epidemic. Fighting back tears and with shaking hands, Melton read off just some of the more recent mass shootings, of which there have been 180 since the start of 2016.

And holding up another piece of paper – a printout of a widely circulated Facebook meme with just one word, “Enough” – Melton posed a hard query to the gatherers.

“What does enough really mean? Does it mean until the next time this happens? Does it mean until we’ve lit our candles? It’s not just candles, not just love. It’s about taking action, knowing where our politicians stand and stopping this,” she said. “Assault rifles do not belong in our society.”

While Melton wept, McLaughlin returned to the podium to close the vigil, which included music and a song from UNCW student Zach Lee. Looking out at the many young faces, McLaughlin felt they were owed an apology.

“I can’t imagine growing up in a generation where this becomes the new normal,” she said. “I’m sorry. As one of the adults, I’m sorry that’s the case.”

Bearing a clear message, Samantha Boomershine attends the vigil with her mother, UNCW professor Dr. Amanda Boomershine, and sister, Sofia.
Bearing a clear message, Samantha Boomershine attends the vigil with her mother, UNCW professor Dr. Amanda Boomershine, and sister, Sofia.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.