The tone was somber yet hopeful during Friday evening’s vigil service at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, which honored and mourned the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando and the targets of hate crimes everywhere.
About 70 community members, many of whom weren’t members of the congregation, attended the Shabbat service to remember the lives that were lost and to show their support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The vigil’s message was that violence is never the answer.
Prayers for the open acceptance of the LGBT community were weaved into the regular Friday service and calls were made to address the pervasiveness of homophobia in the Virgin Islands. In a moving act, four mothers with children who identify as LGBT lit four candles in remembrance of the victims.
Though 49 people lost their lives last weekend in the most deadly mass shooting in U.S. history and 53 others were wounded, the majority of local faith leaders and government officials have remained silent on the issue.
St. Thomas Congregation’s Rabbi Mike Harvey said some of these faith leaders condemn the gun violence, but none who were on island this weekend were willing to address homophobia with him during the service.
“Their silence on this issue is its own statement, letting the young men and women on St. Thomas see that the faith community will not speak out publicly against gun violence, or discrimination against citizens of our great nation,” Harvey said.
The territory has an active interfaith group that vocally opposes marriage equality by promoting biblical standards of marriage. In June 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, stating that same-gender couples have the same right to marry as opposite-gender couples in all 50 states and U.S. territories, including the Virgin Islands.
During his sermon, Harvey questioned the strict interpretation of biblical laws and the relevance of some of them in the 21st century: Wearing two different types of fabric and getting tattoos would be a sin if these laws were still directly adhered to. Women would also still be the property of their husbands, but times have changed he said.
“While it would be nice to say that these faith leaders represent only a fringe group within our community, the truth is that our laws reflect their beliefs more than they reflect the belief that all persons should be treated equally under the law,” Harvey said.
Harvey explained that the Virgin Islands doesn’t have anti-discrimination laws for employment, which mean LGBT people can be fired for being gay and can even be refused goods or services, since there are no discrimination laws that make it illegal for businesses to do so.
Attendees of the service supported Harvey for taking such a strong stand against homophobia and directly calling out the territory’s leaders.
“I’m here for the experience of communal mourning and I give the rabbi credit for taking the risk of calling government officials and faith leaders to account,” Megan Driscoll, a member of the congregation, said.
Kevin Rodriquez attended the vigil to take a stand against senseless killings like the Orlando shootings. He felt the message was timely and relevant.
“There’s too much hatred and bigotry in the world, but what we need is more peace and love, especially in the Virgin Islands where there’s been significant violence recently,” Rodriquez said.
The Reform Movement of Judaism, of which the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas is a member, has advocated for gay and lesbian rights since 1965 and in 1977 passed its first resolutions calling for the basic human rights for homosexuals. The movement allows gays and lesbians to serve in its rabbinate and cantorate.
Harvey hopes the vigil will be the start of a cultural shift in the Virgin Islands and wants to give local faith leaders an opportunity to learn, grow and change.
“In the face of such hatred, The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas is proud to lead by example as a safe-haven for the LGBT community and their allies,” Harvey said. “The U.S. Virgin Islands is extremely behind the times, and it is time for us all to stand on the right side of history.”