WARRENSBURG — Members of the University of Central Missouri and Warrensburg communities gathered at the college Wednesday afternoon for a vigil to remember and honor the victims of Sunday’s shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people and injured dozens.
A constant theme throughout the hour-long event was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” People filled a room in the Elliott Student Union as they heard from community speakers, but some of the most powerful moments came from impromptu remarks from audience members at the end of the vigil.
Yechia Caban Jimenez, a Johnson County resident and Puerto Rico native, was the first to speak, and her tearful speech touched everyone in the room. Sunday’s shooting was not only at a gay nightclub, but it also took place on Latin Pride Night at the venue, and many of the victims were Puerto Rican.
“Three of those (Hispanic club-goers) were really close friends,” she told the crowd, who all gasped in response. “One of those three, I grew up with, went to school with. I learned how to love and accept the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community through him. The other two of my good friends that were killed that night, one was a good friend of mine that lived with me. The third survived. One of them was there to just have a good time. She was a married young lady that had two kids that were left behind.
“… It’s been really hard to understand and to believe this because this was not only a hit on the LGBT community but it was on the Hispanic community and it’s been really hard,” she continued. “I want to thank UCM for doing this. If everyone starts coming together and spreading love instead of hate we might be able to change the world.”
Jimenez ended her time at the microphone by saying the names of her friends who were killed — Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala and Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan.
While a distant connection, UCM President Charles Ambrose knew one of the tragedy’s victims. During his remarks he shared the relief he felt when he saw “Safe in Orlando” posts pop up on Facebook for a few of his Florida friends, but one post didn’t bring relief.
“Unfortunately a post came forward about Steve Tomlinson, a mental health worker in rural North Carolina. He was a big part of the community near (Pfeiffer University, where Ambrose served as president),” Ambrose said. “(His son) Shane was a wonderful singer, just incredible talent. His journey took him to Orlando. Shane was at Pulse Saturday night and Shane’s life was taken. I cannot imagine his pain. I know Shane had aspirations, I know he had hopes. By tracking the posts, Shane was loved … and Shane’s not here.”
Ambrose said after Sunday’s events, he is reflecting on his faith and the closeness of the UCM community.
“Violence and hate cannot be tolerated. Violence and hate must be stood up against,” he said. “I’m grateful to be part of a community that to the best of our ability attempts to mitigate violence and hate in our midst, but it’s not just our community. It’s taking lives with such promise and hope. … I can only respond to hate with love and I am grateful for a community that does love and care for each other.”
Tara Napoleone-Clifford and Dr. Amber Clifford-Napoleone, both UCM alumna and employees, spoke about their experiences as part of the LGBT community in Warrensburg. In fact, the couple met during their time at UCM and Clifford-Napoleone first came out to someone while at UCM.
“Before we begin, my wife and I would like to acknowledge the Latino, LGBT and Muslim communities as victims of this tragedy,” Napoleone-Clifford said. “The Latino and LGBT communities have been deeply affected by the events in Orlando. Islamaphobia is not an appropriate response to this tragedy and we stand with them to speak against hatred and violence.”
“Once again we in the LGBT community find ourselves in mourning, a place we unfortunately know all too well. … When we woke up Sunday we were worried once again about our safety in our home,” Napoleone-Clifford said. “We will not bow down to violence. What we will not do, and what the community must not do, is give in. We cannot allow the murders of our comrades in Orlando to force us into fear and terror.
“Today we must commemorate our history, remember the lives that have been taken and raise our heads proudly as we continue to fight for equality, for safety and for justice. We do so not only in the names of those who were murdered in Orlando, but in the names of the thousands of LGBT people whose lives were taken by violence, by ignorance and by homophobia.”
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-530-0138 or @NicoleRCooke.