By Brian Antonio Sieve, Metropolitan Community Church, August 3, 2019
I moved to Juarez-El Paso June 1, 2019 to be pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of El Paso (MCC). MCC EL Paso is part of a global denomination founded in 1968 to be the first safe churches for LGBTQ+ folks. Our church here in El Paso was founded in September, 1980, almost exactly 40 years ago.
Our MCC church in Orlando lost many friends and members in the hate-fueled Pulse massacre on April 12, 2016. I was interning as a pastor at our MCC church in St. Louis at that time. I remember heading to our church for worship that next day, a Sunday morning, as the details were emerging. I was doing the increasingly common, uniquely US calculus. What must I do if our church is a target? How do I save the most people? At our brief pre-worship staff meeting we had the same discussion.
Pulse was, of course, not the first time fellow Queer folk were the targets of hate. Before Pulse, the Upstairs Lounge firebombing in New Orleans on Sunday, June 24, 1973 was the largest mass murder of Queer folks in this Queer bashing nation. The Upstairs Lounge was where our MCC church in New Orleans had worship in those days when “respectable” churches did not allow us to use their spaces to pray. Our pastor and several congregants had just finished worship not long before the murder-arson, and they burned to death, charred, clutching the locked and barred Upstairs Lounge windows.
On August 3, 2019, I was preparing to head over to Juarez to meet a friend for lunch. I received a text from my cousin who spent a lot of her childhood in El Paso. She really loves this place and these people. When she told me there were reports of multiple shooters at Cielo Vista, and that dozens were seriously wounded, I didn’t know what to think.
In my short time in El Paso – only two months and two days at that point – I felt sure, however, of one thing. The terrorists were not El Pasoans. It had to be outsiders.
I have learned from many respected locals that famously safe El Paso is only safe for some people. But this kind of cowardice and attention seeking carnage does not match the El Paso character I had already come to know and love.
My Prima agreed with me. She was hurting to be so far away while this was going on. Then she told me to be careful. That always makes me scratch my head. It is an honor that people love me and worry about my safety. But no one who is a victim of terror was ever not “being careful.” I know she meant it with love, no disrespect.
Then Pulse came to mind. The plans I had to make after that massacre. I had some direction, God forbid, when this happened in my community.
I began calling my church board, checking on each member of my small congregation. That was step one: check that my congregants were safe. Next: check their emotional state. They “guessed” they were okay. Was anyone okay that day? Juarenses-El Pasoans know, the whole community would be in shock for a long time. Third step: go be of service to the victims and their families.
I threw on my clergy collar, which I hate to wear. I grabbed a stole and jumped in the truck. I was on the phone with local fellow clergy friends. They let me know that the families weren’t at the scene, nor nearby Ponder Park as news had said. They were being sent to MacArthur school. Being new to El Paso, I didn’t know where Cielo Vista was, much less MacArthur school. Google maps led me there. The scene was unlike anything I ever saw, for sure. I asked a few people where to go to be with the families, and they all responded with respect and called me Father. That is something I always feel uncomfortable about. The collar separates me. It is so generous of locals to use that title of respect and endearment. Yet I always fear it centers me, and not those I am there to serve. I hope too, that it lets people know that I am safe and open, and not one of “those” pastors. Not “that” kind of Christian we see on TV. That I really am here for them.
I am not telling this story for myself. My role was to serve, and I was there completely by choice. Being present in a privileged situation, carries responsibility. I must bear witness to just a slice of the unimaginable suffering so many families went through that day. It has become clear to me this August 2020, that this time of year will always be a season of great grief for the region. And in that, I do not want so many of the local Indigenous voices missed. I do not speak for them. But I hope my testimony will lead folks to make sure to seek them first.
People try to imagine what it’s like, I know I have. I have been in other crisis situations. But the surreal approach to the elementary school surrounded by whirring helicopters, and every kind of emergency responder, was unprecedented for me. And at the time I didn’t think I had any personal connection to the victims. I tried to assure myself that I could handle this. I cannot imagine the strength of those families to carry their weight upright, one foot in front of the other. I can’t imagine the strength it takes to tread that path in their shoes.
Security at the door checked my ID and had me sign in, then respectfully called me Father and directed me to the cafeteria where the families were gathering. “The other Father is in there. He will be happy to see you.” And he was. He is one humble, gifted, servant. Father Fabian was my opposite in some ways. He is from this community, of this community. He was uber connected to these families. He never left their side, for days, and weeks after. At one point the Catholic Bishop came by for a while to express his love and concern. He was humble and gracious, what I have come to know is usual for him. He’s a surprisingly down to earth and authentic prelate. When my clergy friends arrived to help, they were told there were enough clergy and sent away. So it would be Father Fabian and me with these families for the next several hours.
I do not feel comfortable sharing the stories of the families. They are their own to tell. I would never want to add a single drop to their immense suffering. I do feel a duty to share what I remember, my own impressions only, of what transpired in the MacArthur cafeteria that day.
Early on there was a constant flow of people. I can’t even estimate the numbers, but everyone who couldn’t track down their beloved that day, was naturally desperate. There were hundreds of uniforms, and suits, and earpieces, and sheriffs, FBI, EPPD, more. Upon arriving, loved ones were asked to fill out a form. They sat at school cafeteria tables and were called a table at a time into the gym. It was there that advocates compared the family sheets with info from those who were taken by police from the scene to the Pebble Hills police station for debrief. I don’t know a good word to use. Those without physical injuries?
Advocates also had a list of the physically injured and what hospitals they were taken to. And in the chaos, there were a lot of people not in the database. Phones were unreliable that day. Many people had been at the mall, and despite earlier reports, and alerts still being issued by law enforcement, there was only one coward terrorist mass shooter seeking attention in El Paso that day. But there was no clear story in town that afternoon. Conflicting reports were ubiquitous. If one could not contact, nor locate a loved one, there was no safe assumption as to their whereabouts or well being. So, there were many families standing vigil in the MacArthur school cafeteria and gym.
The first real information came at about 5:30 p.m. Many were yet to be reunited with their loved ones. I was talking with a family in the corner of the small, very crowded cafeteria. When a hush settled over the room, I looked up to see a two tiered line forming up front. I had never before seen the mayor or the governor, but there they were at the center of a coterie of law enforcement and other politicians.
It was all overwhelming, and I was more tuned in to the families and their reactions, checking to see if I could be of some assistance. I have vague memories of the mayor crying a lot. I specifically remember my appalled reaction to the governor telling these terrorized families that, due to his physical challenges, he knew exactly how they felt. (!) They believe it was a lone shooter, he has been apprehended. No, they had not identified the bodies. They would not even begin to look at them any time soon. The investigation was very important. What we were told was very similar to what I saw in a press conference later.
I cannot imagine anything that could be done at that point that would have eased the suffering of those families, the communication seemed to help. After that excruciating, long, and unsatisfying briefing, there were several requests from families to chat with me, or to pray. I remember that it was after that meeting when volunteers and advocates began to fill the room with comestibles, sustenance sent from the community with love. It was needed and appreciated. Lots of people were checking phones for news and attempting desperately to reach loved ones. Counseling services were offered. It was oppressively hot in the school that August evening.
Families were still arriving from Juarez. The already insanely over militarized border, bisecting our one city falsely into two, is odious to cross under “normal” circumstances. Under this highest terror attack alert, I cannot imagine the struggle of these families to cross. Who could fathom having to endure the usual degradation on top of the unimaginable terror of fearing the worst for their loved ones?
I believe there was another update at about 7:30 p.m. I think it was then that the families were told that many were being debriefed at Pebble Hills police station. Law enforcement reported that after all the testimonies were cross referenced, these witnesses would be brought here to MacArthur and reunited with their families. And no. No attempt was being made to identify deceased loved ones. The investigation was more important.
I do remember for sure there were several subsequent hours of no new information. As time went on, the room cleared of most of the waiting families. They were discretely summoned to a wholly different area of the school to be reunited with loved ones, or given news where to meet them.
Meanwhile about nineteen families had time to gather as much of their extended family and support system as possible. Each family found their own space in the room in an effort to comfort and support each other. It took a while for it to register for me. I don’t know when, or if it ever did register with any of them before the late briefing.
As 9:30 p.m. passed and no news came, I circled the families just to check in and see if I could be of help in any way. A few made small talk. I realize now that some may have been testing their own fears against what I may or may not know. The truth is that I knew no more than they did. But there was a new grief I was sensing in the realization that we were coming to that awful time when these sacred, beautiful families would receive the worst possible news.
Finally about 10:30 p.m. a much smaller number of officials gathered. Those still present asked when their loved ones would be released from Pebble Hills. They were informed that everyone at Pebble Hills had already been reunited with their loved ones. I watched the calculations fly across some of the faces. When they asked about the deceased, they were told that investigators would not begin identifying them for hours. The prosecution is all important.
Many pushed back this time. We were many hours into the investigation, the murderer was well in custody, there must be many videos, there were many interviewed at the police station as they had told us. Was it really such and overwhelming risk to the prosecution to approach the bodies and document their identity? Is it really necessary to expect the families to shoulder this titanic burden on top of the already monstrous grief and suffering they are trying to survive?
I approached, I think someone from the FBI who seemed to be in charge, while another official was speaking. I spoke sotto voce in his ear that he must at least tell them they are likely to receive the terrible news; they need to hear the truth. He pulled me to the side irritated, then feigning concern. He insisted to me that they have no way of knowing if that was true. I was livid. But this was not about me. I do not know if I was right or wrong, but I kept it to myself after that. I vowed that one day I would speak about my impression that this choice by the powerful was rooted in profound insensitivity, if not outright disrespect. This is how I perceived it. I would never presume to speak for the families.
To my heart, all the solicitous words, lowered eyes and voices, and obsequious concern was betrayed by the choice to surrender all priorities to law enforcement. Denying these families, already unfairly bearing the ultimate burden, even the dignity of being properly informed that their loved ones were slain was inexcusable from my vantage point. Their loved ones, their family, their community had been targeted based on the myth that Indigenous people were invaders. That Anglos were somehow, in lazy twisted fantasies, the victims of their own colonizing, interloping, oppressive invasion of these lands.
Each family would have to spend the night with the horrifying image of their loved ones still lying on the ground – nameless, unidentified – adding indignity to terror. They were informed that no identifications would be made until morning. That the families should go home, and come back tomorrow. Eventually they were welcomed, of course, to remain at the school holding vigil. Those from Chihuahua likely had no options but to accept the offer to sleep on cots in the hot classrooms. They could not risk attempting to cross back and forth again.
I remained a few hours to listen, to be present, and bear witness. Was my presence helpful, or intrusive? Did being reminded that God was in the room comforting? Or insulting? Most decided to stay the night there. I imagine I would too, given their few acceptable options. I did leave at some point.
Father Fabian, stayed all night with them. He has shared his story. The families were informed slowly one family at a time starting at about 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. I was told that the last notifications were happening while we had gathered at Ponder Park Sunday night for the community interfaith vigil. Should I have returned to be with them? I still do not know. It was some comfort knowing that Father Fabian was there. A truly good, man of God.
I had found out, in that long waiting time Saturday night, that I did indeed know two of the victims. I had worked closely with them the past couple months. I struggled to hold the grief of their heartbreaking story at bay.
I do not know how many vigils, funerals, and Masses Father Fabian, other Catholic priests, and the Bishop participated in. I know I was present in various roles for a total of nineteen vigils, funerals, and community prayers over the weeks that followed. Fellow interfaith ministers became very familiar to me through these heartbreaking memorials.
One of the most memorable vigils took place a day later, beginning at Armijo Park. Many from the Barrio were there for Indigenous drumming and dancing, and a procession to Casa Carmelita on Stanton. We listened to community member, after community member tell the many ways they felt targeted and erased all at the same time; not just by this attack, but also by the President, and so many wannabe oligarchs, and politicians with, to put it nicely, conflicts of interest right here in the region.
It was there that I heard so many overlooked El Pasoans chafe at the phrase El Paso Strong that was being imposed on them. They believed it was to silence their too real outcry. To erase generations of resistance against the carefully constructed web of oppressions which endure at the hands of the Anglo power hoarders of this region. They spoke repeatedly about daily violence from law enforcement, including so many who look like them, but are intoxicated by proximity to whiteness. It was not lost on them that a large number of the specifically targeted victims were from the other side of the imperial border. El Paso strong did not include them, to say the least.
Just days after the gathering at Casa Carmelita a (well known on national social media) virulent white supremacist parked outside that same sanctuary on South Stanton Street wearing gloves, brandishing a knife, with a bag of powdered substance, and weapons, and ammunition. The police briefly questioned, then released him. While many in El Paso feel that the illusion of “safety” has been shattered, many others point to generations of necessary resistance to countless oppressive systems, government agencies, insiders and outsiders, power-brokers and their scions, et al. who violently occupy this land.
My personal request is that a protocol be drawn up here in El Paso, and nationwide, that includes the interests, dignity, and rights of the victims’ families in the execution of the investigations that follow these frequent sick national episodes. I cannot help but feel that predominantly Anglo victims’ families would not have been such an afterthought to those in charge. That is my impression. No family member ever told me explicitly that they feel that way. But in the future, we must make sure there is more of a balance. When humanity is the target, humanity must be preserved.
I also call for the Anglo elite to stop trying to reshape this region to suit their vanity at all costs: obliterating the voices, the culture, the communities, and the lives of the people to whom this land should really belong. I acknowledge the ancestors of this land and thank them, with much gratitude to the people of El Paso and Juarez for the honor of walking this journey with them.
Brian Antonio Sieve has just completed his first year in El Paso as Pastor of Metropolitan Community Church. He has lived in St. Louis, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois where he taught 7-12 grades, was a technical college administrator, a juvenile detention chaplain, and worked in the recovery field. He won fellowships and sabbaticals in Palestine, Argentina, Italy, Canada, and Mexico. On a personal and spiritual journey since youth, Brian identifies his path with the mariposa monarca. He feels privileged to be in El Paso, following the call of his ancestors by migrating from the upper Midwest, to the Frontera, and to his heart and soul in Mexico.
The path teaches, the teacher reminds.