Another Disaster, Another Ritual

Tuesday evening (June 8), on an extremely hot and humid evening, I joined thousands of other residents of London, Ontario at what was called “A Vigil for the Murdered London Family”. Two evenings prior, three generations of the same family, grandmother, parents, two children were out for a walk when a truck jumped the curb and mowed them down. It was not an accident, it was deliberate. They were murdered because they were a ‘visual minority’, a Muslim family. And the new face of terrorism in North America was behind the wheel – a young, angry, hate-filled, white male. All were killed except for the 9-year old boy, still in hospital. The outrage of the community, mixed with a lack of patience at the end of an endless pandemic, new revelations about abuses and disregard for indigenous children at a church-run residential school, deaths of family and friends from COVID, and endless other frustrations came to bear on a local and grievous set of murders. As I stood in the midst of people who had gathered, so many emotions were palpable. Anger by many, faith, grief (especially those with close connections to the family), a general sadness, confusion, anxiety, fear, a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, a opportunity for personal political gain by some, a desire to learn from the event, and an acceptable escape after endless ‘stay at home’ orders in the province were among the mix of emotions on view.

I have studied, taught, given talks about, and written on disaster rituals for quite a while now, and over the past 15 years some elements of these ritual responses have remained constant while others are evolving. Elsewhere I classified the ‘disaster ritual family’ in a threefold way (from my perspective as a Christian): the rituals dealing with disasters outside a parish or community circle which are observed within that Christian community; rituals done by Christians for the larger multifaith and no-faith community; and interreligious rituals observed out in the community. The civic dance with religion, especially in a post-Christian country such as Canada, is the arena in which so many disaster rituals now take place, especially in urban areas. These types of events are therefore the area of most development. What did I see and learn that evening in reflecting on five dimensions of this vigil?

First, the use of the term “vigil”. I always remember Bob Taft’s pithy introduction to vigils in his The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West (1986:66): vigils are “an act of faith in the resurrection of the dead” finding their model in the women at the tomb before that first Easter morning. But in broader liturgical circles, vigils are a way of keeping watch, being vigilant, expectant, as well as preparatory, particularly at martyr vigils, before major feasts, Saturday nights before the Sunday celebration, in complicated monastic liturgies, in an office of readings with its time for silent reflection, and in many historical variations on all of these. In the contemporary parlance of disaster rituals in the community however, ‘vigil’ has become a neutral title for a communal response to a disaster, regardless of time of day or structure of response. In many ways it is still linked to death, but it does not look to the resurrection in a Christian understanding, but rather is calibrated as an act of support and solidarity, with the expectation of further action (ritual, social and political) often to come. Vigil, for many secular participants, does not carry the ‘taint of prayer’, and is therefore sufficiently inclusive while providing a vehicle to begin to process the tragedy confronting the community.

Second, the reality is that the repertoire of ritual actions and objects is limited. Regardless of their perceived origins, flowers and candles, stuffed animals and poems, photos and various religious items are the elements of grassroot memorials placed at the actual scene of the disaster (or at another associated location). Disasters focused on a particular group may have specific objects identified with those who have died or been injured, such as the hockey sticks and jerseys at a memorial for a Saskatchewan hockey team killed in a bus accident. At least a decade ago now, a new form of portable memorial, especially for victims who had no home or place or neighbourhood, arose in poorer urban landscapes, a text and photo placed on t-shirts or cars – a placeless memorial for the disenfranchised. In addition, the contrast of light and dark as a way to give expression to hope and dismay, good and evil, life and death has merged with the terminology of ’vigil’, creating an increasingly common ‘candlelight vigil’ held at dusk or after dark. Here participants bring an actual candle or hold up their phone with the light on or with an image of a lit candle. A more recent element is the choice of a particular colour (or colours) linked to the victims (at this vigil it was a combination of green and purple ribbons, last week, for the indigenous childrens’ remains found in Kamloops, it was orange).

Third, the words and the speakers. Civic elected leaders are often on the list, as well as family members or friends of the deceased or otherwise affected. Often there is an official spokesperson chosen by those closest to the affected victims, or several voices competing to be the spokesperson. And what do they say? Politicians offer their thoughts and prayers, and vow to oversee systemic changes, others speak to the memory of those killed, similar to the ubiquitous ‘celebrations of life’. This focus is on the lives of those who have died – who they were and what they did – and in this case, their many connections to the community. Above all, the words point to what will be done, especially where the disaster was a result of terrorism or conflict. The legal changes necessary (a charge from or to politicians), the moral changes necessary (a vow to the community or to each other), and often revenge against those who perpetrated the crimes. On this particular night, the mourning was paired with assurances of solidarity and inclusion.

Fourth, the actions. Like the ritual repertoire of objects, ritual actions are also limited in number. The grassroots emergence of an immediate display of flowers and more at the scene has become ubiquitous and almost standardized. In spite of official requests to not gather together, it was interesting to see people bring flowers, images, and letters to Buckingham Palace and to Windsor Castle at the death of Prince Philip. Even a pandemic does not stop this action. Just prior to this vigil, a social media blitz prompted many to bring chalk to draw hearts all over the roads near the mosque, closed to traffic because of the crowds. Another social media message resulted in many carrying signs of solidarity and support for the Muslim community, focused on how all are welcome in Canada. The vigil was primarily a gathering of people and speeches, but there were many who brought flowers to lay in front of the mosque (a secondary memorial), and family members brought ribbons to tie on the fence, which they did at an instructed time. On the day of the funeral there is a call to line all the streets from funeral home to mosque and from mosque to cemetery as a sign of support, and lastly a multifaith march from the scene of the murder to the mosque, arriving there at the end of Friday prayers, additional ritual actions as part of the multi-day disaster response.

Fifth, the role of religion in public grieving. As disaster rituals evolved through the 1990s and into the 21st century, the overt role of religious language, imagery, and even official representatives dropped in many places. What took its place were generic rituals couched in vague spirituality, or, in some places, exotic religious rituals sufficiently distant from the gathered community to be ‘acceptable.’ Two religious changes were present last night which have begun to emerge in other settings. There was a clear pushback and even rejection of the secularizing trends of modern-day Canada in the overt prayers, speakers, and setting – in this case Islamic prayers. If one paid attention, it became apparent that the huge and diverse gathering was ultimately hosted by the mosque, around which the gathering was taking place. There were other religious leaders there – non-Muslim – dressed in distinctive attire, including a number of bishops, but they were not invited to say anything, nor were they publicly acknowledged. The shift away from apologizing for religion was therefore twofold – this was an event both civic and religious, but the religion was that of the victim and of the host, the Islamic Centre of London.

The early days of interfaith gatherings saw a sort of equal time for Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics, and ‘other’ Christians (and occasionally Buddhists, Hindus and more). The prayers at this vigil were chanted in Arabic, and many were repeated in English for the larger populace. So religious presence did not mean a dash of everyone having a word – the dead were Muslim, the prayers were Muslim, the hosts were Muslim. The mosque had, in addition to a heavy police presence, their own security and health workers checking on people in the extreme heat. The mosque provided water bottles to all, weaving in and out of the crowd to make sure people were hydrated. The evening began with a land acknowledgement (as does almost every public gathering in Canada) of the indigenous tribes on whose land the mosque was built by the MC who was a London-born practicing lawyer, a woman, who was very much a local as well as a competent host. There was no apology for the centrality of religious language and faith. Here is a change from even fifteen years ago. Is it because we have found it impossible to keep religion out of tragedy and death, or because it is increasingly the voices of other religions returning some religious discourse to the secular square? Does pluralism always need to mean no religion?

The need for disaster rituals to help in the process of coming to terms with horrific deaths seems to unfortunately be growing rather than diminishing. But the make-up of these ritual gatherings – giving voice to diverse gatherings in pluralistic settings – seems to be both about retaining practices shaped over the last forty years as well as shifting to new emphases and choices. To this participant, I wonder if the re-emergence of religion in the public square may be the work of religions other than Christianity? What will Christians do as part of this movement? What kind of adaptations of prayer language and discourse and ritual actions will we contribute in these “vigils” of necessity?

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