Sunday, June 24, 2018: The New Orleans community gathered for the 45th Anniversary of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire Memorial Worship Service at St. Mark's United Methodist Church - the same church that held the original memorial service on July 1, 1973.
On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar located on the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. Killing 32 people and injuring countless others, the event was considered the "Largest Gay Mass Murder in U.S. History" for over four decades.
As in 1973, the St. Mark's sanctuary was packed, even filling the balcony. It was standing room only. People sat shoulder to shoulder to honor the memories of the victims of the Up Stairs Lounge Arson.
The service began with Rev Cory Sparks, the pastor of St. Mark's, reading the original 1973 Call to Worship, written and delivered by Rev Paul Breton, a member of the Metropolitan Community Church delegation that traveled to New Orleans after the fire to tend to the injured, grieving and deceased. (One-third of the New Orleans chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church were killed in the blaze, including two clergy.)
I chose to sit in the balcony because of its symbolism. It was here where a woman yelled out at the end of the 1973 service, "We came in the front door, we're gonna leave by the front door", when the congregation was faced with the decision on what to do after learning TV cameras were waiting outside.
Over the past five years, I've grown very close to Rev Paul Breton, Rev John Gill and especially Rev Troy Perry (the founder of the Metropolitan Community Church). Throughout the service, as I looked down towards the front of the sanctuary, I found myself having "flashbacks" to the 1973 service, "seeing" and "hearing" their voices echo throughout the church. That July Sunday must have felt much like it did on this day. It was 96 degrees outside and with people sitting shoulder to shoulder, it was hot inside too. That didn't stop people from attending in 1973 and it didn't stop people in 2018. We sat, fanned ourselves and worshipped through song and prayer.
While the entire service was a beautiful tribute to the victims, their families and all those impacted by the fire, there were several other moments that gave me chills:
- The first came as Kelley Dixson took everyone to church with her powerful rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come". (https://youtu.be/1Aw4tuoIZes)
- The next came when Rev Alisan Rowland, the current pastor of the MCC of New Orleans, stepped up to the pulpit. She read a statement from Reverend Elder Troy Perry. As she read the letter, I began to hear Troy's voice instead, complete with his booming Pentecostal passion.
- In 1973, New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu did not acknowledge the fire or the victims. (Even though it was, and remains, the deadliest fire in New Orleans history.) His deafening silence would indicate that the lives of those killed or injured in the arson didn't matter. It was shameful. - - - Forty-five years later, in stark contrast, the current Mayor, LaToya Cantrell, not only attended the Worship Service, but she spoke passionately to the congregation about the importance of the New Orleans LGBTQ community and her administration's dedication to it. (https://youtu.be/nXBcHXKpbyw)
Over the past 5 years, during the production of UPSTAIRS INFERNO, the feature length documentary recounting the fire and its aftermath, I've grown very close to survivors, families/friends of victims and other key players. I grieve for the victims as if they were my personal friends. As such, when Rev Cory read the names of the victims at the end of the service, it really touched my heart. I can only imagine what it felt like to those who lost friends or loved ones in the fire.
It meant so much to me to be able to attend the 45th Anniversary Worship Service and pay my respects.
I will conclude this video description with a reflection from Rev Paul Breton's journal, written shorty after the fire, which still rings true today:
"NOW THE TRAGEDY IS OVER. WE HAVE TO LOOK TO THE FUTURE. THE DEAD HAVE LEFT US A LEGACY I SHALL NEVER FORGET. FROM THE TRAGEDY THERE WILL RISE A MORNING-AFTER. AND FROM THIS TRAGEDY, THERE WILL BE A GROWING AND EVEN STRONGER EFFORT TO UNITE."
- Robert L. Camina
(Director, UPSTAIRS INFERNO)
ABOUT THE FILM, UPSTAIRS INFERNO:
The feature film is NOW available to STREAM:
AMAZON PRIME VIDEO: http://a.co/6wKLo8O
OUTSIDE THE U.S.? Viewers WORLDWIDE can stream at: http://Stream.UpstairsInferno.com
Avail. on DVD and Blu-ray (with Bonus Features) at: http://Buy.UpstairsInferno.com
With interviews from survivors, family/friends of victims and witnesses, UPSTAIRS INFERNO vividly examines this oft-forgotten story and captures the power of unconditional love and forgiveness in the face of tragedy.
OFFICIAL TRAILER: https://vimeo.com/94900386
Learn more: www.UpstairsInferno.com