• Tim Haworth

Upstairs Lounge

Would Someone Care…Please??!!

Two years ago, on the first anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting that claimed the lives of 49 predominantly LGBTQ and Hispanic people, I rang our church bell in remembrance of those who died. It was reported on the local news’ website and one of the comments about the story still haunts me two years later.

The response: “Who cares.”

It haunts me because it expresses the heart of a vast majority of people – including people of the church.

Did you know that at the time the death toll at the Pulse shooting amounted to the largest mass killing in U.S. history. The mark was sadly eclipsed just over a year later with the Las Vegas shooting. But the Pulse remains the largest killing of LGBTQ individuals. Do you know what ranks second? I’ll bet you don’t. Not many people do. And for good reason – most people didn’t care.

It was June 23, 1973 at a gay bar in New Orleans called the Upstairs Lounge. It was a sanctuary for LGBT people in an era of persecution and disdain for “queers”. The Lounge included a theater-style room that hosted performances, drag shows and services for the local Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). Yep, that back room literally served as a church sanctuary on some Sundays.

Including Sunday, June 23, 1973.

The service had concluded and many members, including the pastor and associate pastor, stayed behind to hang out, enjoy the “beer bust” and listen to the pianist from the nearby Marriott Hotel. At 8:00 p.m. the door buzzer from the street sounded. One of the patrons went to door unaware that the stairway leading up to it was engulfed in flame. When he opened the door the fire flashed through the room like a flame thrower and within seconds the ceiling and walls were in flames. Within 15 minutes 29 lives were lost to the smoke and flames. The bodies were charred beyond recognition. Many were hurt and three later succumbed to their injuries. In total thirty-two people died. The local MCC church lost both pastors and a third of their members.

To this day it remains the deadliest fire in the history of New Orleans. And it was caused by arson. Someone emptied a can of lighter fluid into the stairway and set it on fire. Despite a number of leads, as of today no one has been charged for this offense and it remains an unsolved crime. I think one could make a case that this remains unsolved because the police at the time didn’t care. The chief of detectives was quoted as saying, “…some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.”

Wink wink nod nod. I guess we know what that means.

Rev. Troy Perry, the national leader of the MCC remembers hearing a radio host jokingly ask on air the next day, “What do we bury them in?” The punchline? “Fruit jars.” But who cares right? It was just a bunch of queers.

State and church officials remained mostly silent about the tragedy. The city’s mayor and the governor hardly said anything. There was some comment made about fire codes but nothing about the immense loss of life. The Catholic archbishop Philip Hannan was silent. And if you think I’m being overly sensitive you should know that two other deadly fires in New Orleans in the months prior to the Upstairs killing were addressed by these individuals. The two fires combined caused the deaths of 14 people. The mayor and the governor issued statements of condolence. The Archbishop publicly offered statements of support to the families of the victims.

Twice that number died in the Upstairs Lounge. It was not acknowledged by these three leaders. As one of the survivors said, “I guess they figured ‘they were gay – so what?’”

And then there was the church in general and their monumental indifference and lack of care. One Episcopal church allowed survivors and members of the MCC church to gather there for a memorial. He was rebuked by his bishop and roundly criticized for allowing people like that to use the church. After Rev. Perry arrived in town he tried to organize a memorial service. He was looking for a local church to host the service. The archdiocese of the Catholic Church refused to help. Baptist churches hung up on him. The Episcopal church would not host after all of the reaction to the initial service. After two weeks of searching Rev. Perry finally found a United Methodist church that was willing to host the memorial service.

Two weeks.

The churches didn’t care.

Folks, when we stop caring as a church then as far as I am concerned it is “game over”. We are no longer the church. Pure and simple. When we look at anyone and dismiss them, refuse them hospitality, pretend that they don’t exist, refuse to offer even the slightest amount of compassion – we are not the church. Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 says it all:

“…for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. They they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we say you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”

I didn’t intend to write this to stir up guilt. But if you feel convicted by this you need to do something to show you care. Open your heart and mind to God’s revealing light and see those blind spots. Where are we missing the “Jesus” that is among us? Who counts as “those people” to you that you aren’t willing to care for? In New Orleans it was “the queers”. In our hearts maybe “those people” are the poor, other genders, persons of color, people of other nationalities and faiths. Who are the “least of these” to you and how might you answer Jesus’ call to care for them?

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