Finding faith after the Monterey Park mass shooting

Reflections on my visit to the memorial at the scene

For the first time in my life, I found myself close enough to the scene of a mass shooting to do what I did on January 23rd, 2023. And that's: go there, to the scene. Stand at the open wound left in the community by a shooter determined to write his own decay into the lives of others, using as his instrument a gun that could punch holes in rebar. A gun that the 1st United States Congress could not possibly have had in mind when, two hundred and thirty two years ago, they ratified the right to bear arms.

Specifically, I went to Monterey Park, a city seven miles east of Downtown Los Angeles, where Los Angeles County's worst ever mass shooting took place on the night of January 21st, 2023. The 11 victims were slaughtered on the dance floor at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio at Garvey/Garfield.

The studio is building number 122B in a strip mall largely indistinguishable from the thousand others like it under the Southern Californian sun. Modular buildings, with easily changed signage, that don't seem to encourage emotional attachment (and yet that often become, through word of mouth and over time, best-kept local secrets). The studio's name is mounted high on its concrete wall in a giggling red font, the sort you might see on a child's birthday card. Like almost every building in Monterey Park, where so many Asian immigrants find a foothold on the American Dream, its name is rendered in Chinese characters too.

As I arrived in the parking lot, I thought of the victims doing the same and heading toward this charmingly goofy sign with their shoe bags and Lunar New Year trinkets. They were seniors mainly. Pictures of grandchildren in their phones. Knees with limits that the music would soon have them forget. Before they were dead, they were dancing.

Fear of interloping at the memorial

I cannot exactly articulate why I felt the need to come here, some thirty-six hours after those men and women lost their lives. I can tell you only that as soon as the idea crossed my mind, it became my afternoon. I had brought a card from my family (families, in fact) and some flowers. I also brought my camera because, if I'm honest, I thought I might need something to distance myself emotionally from what I saw, and that's what a camera does for me. I did not anticipate that I would put my camera away after only a few pictures and become part of the gathering instead.

What was formerly the strip-mall parking lot was now a media thicket, set back twenty meters or so from the dance studio. Network trucks with satellite dishes; crisp-shirted reporters encircled by thousand-dollar lenses; grungy camera crew with headsets and niche juice bottles. The afternoon sun was slanting down behind them all, smelting them into a thick, jagged silhouette, only half-human in shape because of all their gear. My feeling on first seeing their dominance of the immediate landscape was dismay bordering on disgust, even as I knew this was simply the other side of every TV image of public trauma I've ever seen. TV images that had made me feel like I was there. Now that I was really there, I couldn't very well turn on those who'd given me the illusion of that until now.

The entrance gate to the studio - tall and ornate, almost stately - had become the site of a makeshift memorial, with flowers and cards consuming the sidewalk. The media had positioned themselves so that the memorial was in the backdrop of their reporters. This was one of the reasons I made a hasty retreat from the memorial after I'd set down my family's offerings – I am that rare Angeleno who doesn't want to be on TV.

Mainly, though, I didn't stay by the memorial because I wasn't sure enough of what was customary. Were there people who preferred to look at the memorial from a distance? I'd be blocking their view if I stood there. And wouldn't it be self-dramatizing to linger by the flowers? My pain was no bigger or more important than anyone else's. By most measures, it was considerably smaller. I knew none of the dead; I'm not Asian-American; I don't live in this neighborhood. I could go to the frontline briefly, sure, but what right had I to loiter there? So I returned to the perimeter and continued my contemplation of the scene from there instead.

Praying or something like it

It turns out I wasn't alone in my doubts about the extent to which I could stand here. Some ten minutes later, a newly arrived Asian-American woman in her 60s leaned toward me with a question.

Did I think it would be alright, she said, if she went up and prayed over there, by the flowers?

I don't know why she asked me in particular. I was wearing a crisp shirt like the reporters, and still had my camera around my neck, so perhaps she thought I was with the media. (The British accent with which I replied probably added "BBC" to that false impression.) I told her I could see no harm at all in praying anywhere here. This seemed to give her a vague confidence and she finally acted on it when she saw others drifting forward to the memorial too. They stood just outside arm's length of each other, intent on the flowers, not appearing to notice they were the most diverse set of people on Earth.

Watching them, I didn't want to be at the perimeter anymore.

I put my camera away and joined the woman at the flowers. I would pray here too, I said. She touched me on the arm in welcome, and that was it: I understood why I had come today. For precisely this moment with precisely this woman and the others alongside us too.

She was a Christian who murmured her prayers into a crumpled bridge of her fingers as we stood there. I'm a Jew by choice, which means I reached toward that faith after many years of not considering myself anything at all. (Think of a notepad with words impressed on it from writing on a previous page that has been torn out. That's how I think of my faith. Always there, but unarticulated until I'd shaded over it and brought the impressed letters forward.) I'm not sure I even know how to pray "properly". For that matter, I'm not always sure I want to – in certain contexts, I resent prayer as a form of passivity. This was one of them. I had come to Monterey Park precisely to reject the passive.

So I stood, hands clumsy in my pockets, eyes wholly my own behind my shades, and with nothing like a clear message in my head. I just wanted to stand here with this woman indefinitely. I knew I couldn't do that and I guess that was the final straw, because I cried. Behind my shades, probably without another soul noticing.

After she was done praying, and I had done my something like it, the two of us talked a little. She told me how she is suddenly glad her elderly mother is a shut-in and so won't be out in the communal spaces where she might be shot down mid-sentence, mid-daydream, mid-twirl. Another woman fell into conversation with us too. She was so afraid for the future of her children that witnessing her speak of her feelings was like watching a snake wind itself around her. I couldn't stand it. I hugged her, as hard as I would my own mother. I'm about the same age as the children she spoke of, so I hoped through my grip to say: we'll be alright, mom. I have no idea if that's true, but it's what you say to your mother. It's what you go down saying to your mother.

'It hurts just to think about it,' a Black woman in scrubs said, as she turned away from leaving a plush toy amid the flowers. She was speaking to no one in particular, but everyone in earshot softly agreed. I sensed for a moment a collective reluctance to have anyone here feel they weren't heard today. I very suddenly, and very truly, loved every one of them, these people ranged around me, whose stories I didn't know, and yet did know really - in abstract if not in particulars. We were all of us appalled, terrified, and refusing to be alone with those feelings. That was the only story of theirs I needed to know to be at one with them.

The light and the silence

There are two things I won't be forgetting in a long time.

The first is the patchwork glow that hung over the entire scene courtesy of the light boards angled at the reporters in the parking lot. Eerie is the obvious word to reach for, but it's also inadequate. Interlaced with sunshine, the predominant quality of that light was not so much other-worldly as between-worldly.

The second is the silence. Not library silence, or church silence; not quite. More a broadly held reluctance to impact the scene too much with one's own little life. (The fact that this reluctance also included the media is what ultimately warmed me to them.) There was conversation around the place; there were even smiles. But no one felt that what they had to say or do was more important than what we were all gathering around. In a city where people are constantly prioritizing themselves over their environment, it was chilling. Or do I mean heartwarming? I don't expect ever quite to be sure.

Finding faith, even if it is not in the future

Monterey Park has this as its official motto: "Pride in the past, Faith in the future."

I cannot say I felt either of those things that day. When it comes to the issue of gun violence, the past in itself is not the offense, so much as the ways in which the past has been contorted to advance a political agenda in the present. We are told that the twenty seven words of the Second Amendment mean something that is almost impossible to square with common sense and with language itself. (Do Republican lawmakers think we all cannot read? The words "well-regulated", for example.) And it is the very same people who support the striking down of Roe v. Wade for lack of Constitutional support who tell us this. ("The right to an assault weapon" is asserted in the Constitution exactly as many times as "the right to privacy": zero. And yet it is the absence of only the latter mention that has been used to reconfigure access rights in contemporary America. In some states of America, a person now has a Constitutional right to access a semi-automatic rifle to defend their bodily integrity, but no right to access an abortion to defend their bodily integrity. Make it make sense.)

As for faith in the future, I lost that the day the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was so bravely and fiercely followed by... nothing. Through that nothing, America announced that it would sacrifice children to keep its AR-15s. The data bear this out: according to analysis by the University of Michigan, "firearm-related injuries" are now the leading cause of death in those aged 19 years and below in the United States. The most primitive societies in history – who might routinely rape women, burn "witches", dismember people of color, and cut out the tongues of those practicing other religions – have drawn the line at sacrificing children.

In my card to the community of Monterey Park, I declared 'never again'.

I lied, for kind reasons - the truth too bleak to commit to paper at such a time. In reality, I couldn't have less faith that such shootings will "never again" happen. (Correctly, as it turns out: there was another mass shooting in Northern California, the very same day I visited Monterey Park.)

But there was faith in me as I left Monterey Park that day. Faith in the vast majority of Americans and their humanity - those Americans known to me and unknown. Thanks to what I experienced by the memorial, that faith is stronger than it has ever been, perhaps in my whole life. I have never before felt so connected to strangers, or to this city whose Angels can sometimes appear to have fled. We don't need angels, though. The tender mess of each other might be enough.

What freedom is, and what it isn't

The trouble is that American laws are not articulating the best of America as one feels it when among Americans. There has come into power a ventriloquist voice of the American people that lip-synchs "thoughts and prayers", then goes back to counting its profits from the industry of fear and its close relation, the industry of senseless ideology. Let's be clear: this projected voice is not the true voice of the nation. Most Americans, in fact, want stricter gun-control laws. Somehow, though, that majority voice is received by lawmakers as childlike: whimsical and not authorative. The ventriloquist voice - which is essentially paid for by the National Rifle Association – instead insists that any sort of barrier between an American and a gun is a barrier between an American and freedom. A chasm has formed between what Americans want and the America they get.

This cannot continue. It cannot. To live - and then to die - within the brutality of American inaction on gun control is not freedom. All of this stopped resembling freedom a long time ago.

If no space where Americans might come together and feel community is safe, then community itself is imperiled. I don't pretend to know what the gunman was thinking when he committed this atrocity. But it is surely fair to say that his humanity was grotesquely impaired. You don't gun down slow-waltzing seniors if you have in you the slightest flicker of compassion. The cruel reality is that, should Americans shrink from community in fear for their personal safety, they lose access to the very emotional networks that make humanity such a beautiful and rich experience. In other words, their humanity too will suffer. When we do nothing to protect each other, fear limits life for us all.

Don't tell me that is freedom.

How to be safe

On my return home from Monterey Park, the city of L.A. appeared to comment on my day. 'L.A. is not safe,' declared graffiti on Highland.

The geo-specificity of this feels at once both true and false. L.A. is merely the leading fingertip of the entire hand of America. In reality, nowhere in the nation is safe without federal action toward gun control.

I do believe, though - more than anything - that L.A. (and by extension America) can be safe. That federal action can happen. Everything that that would take is already here: brave, resilient, community-minded Americans who know how to love in the face of fear. But there must be speaking up. There must be rejection of inaction. There must be coming together to insist that the right to life is superior to the right to weaponry, and it must be with the guts, sensitivity and unflinching love with which Americans come together around each unrelenting massacre.

In Memoriam

The sun flare in the image above happens to stretch from the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, as viewed from the northeast corner of the Garvey and Garfield intersection in Monterey Park.

May the lost rest in peace and their loved ones come to feel them in the touch of the sun and in the thrum of a ballroom anthem.

In memoriam: Valentino Marcos Alvero, Hongying Jian, Yu Lun Kao, Lilian Li, Ming Wei Ma, My Nhan, Diana Man Ling Tom, Muoi Dai Ung, Chia Ling Yau, Wen Tau Yu, and Xiujuan Yu.

Lexia Snowe / Winter Bel / Zoe Marie Bullingham
(pen name #1 / pen name #2 / birth name)