Russian River Sisters hold candlelight vigil for victims of intolerance

Originally published in Sonoma West Times & News on Nov. 1, 2010.

CANDLES IN THE WIND — The Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence named Matthew Shepard as their first guardian angel at the closing ceremony in Guerneville’s Sonoma Nesting Company parking lot at the Oct. 10 Day of Mourning. - Photo provided.

CANDLES IN THE WIND — The Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence named Matthew Shepard as their first guardian angel at the closing ceremony in Guerneville’s Sonoma Nesting Company parking lot at the Oct. 10 Day of Mourning. – Photo provided.

GUERNEVILLE — With flickering candles in hand, people from all around the North Bay joined the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at the Oct. 10 Day of Mourning candlelight vigil in memory of the many teenagers who have reportedly committed suicide due to anti-gay bullying in recent months.

Reports of suicides popped up in Sister Sparkle Plenty’s Facebook feed, alerting her of the 29 teenagers who took their lives due to anti-gay bullying in September. The teenagers represent an issue that has been happening for hundreds of years in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community, according to Sister Sparkle. With the media bringing the issue out of the shadows, she thought it was time to make a call for action. “Somebody’s gotta do something,” she thought. “Well, why don’t I do something?”

And so she did, recruiting fellow Russian River Sisters to host a candlelight vigil and march. Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence orders around the country also hosted similar events in memory of the lost LGBT youth.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is a group of men and women who do charity work for LGBT individuals and their local communities. It was founded in 1979 in San Francisco and orders have since sprouted up worldwide.

The Russian River Sisters held their vigil in the heart of Gay History Month, one day before National Coming Out Day and two days before the 12th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder. The Sisters traded in their whimsical ensemble for formal black gowns and white veils to better suit the occasion.

The white veils, known as the veils of tears, had the names of the teenagers who were victims of suicide written on them. More than 50 attendees were invited to write messages on the veils of tears dedicated to those who were lost. On Oct. 30, the veils will be incorporated into the Sisters’ Hallowmas event to honor the dead, said Sister DeManda Refund. At midnight, the veils will be ceremoniously burned and the ashes will be added to the Sisters’ glitter jars to be used in future rituals, “thus, the honoring of the Hallowmas altar and the veils of tears will continue for many years to come.”

The vigil-goers came from all over Sonoma County and beyond to show support. At dusk, they huddled around the Sisters in Guerneville’s Safeway parking lot, making final preparations before the ceremony began.

The Sisters began the ceremony by reading poems and prayers relating to mourning of the dead and the importance of standing up for community members. Sister Sparkle Plenty read a prayer from the bed of a pickup truck.

“Protect us from the earth defilers. Protect our queer youth from the bullies, the abusers, the name callers, the bigots, the persecutors.… Now in this hour of our need, hear our plea! Banish the hate! Drive out the bigots! End the persecution! Restore our hearts! Give us peace, that we may dwell together in serenity!” She then read the names of teenagers who committed suicide. After each name was called, the vigil-goers said “rest in peace” and held up a white sign with the person’s name.

Afterwards, five Sisters performed a piece inspired by Pastor Martin Niemöller.

 “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist,” said Sister Sara Femme to the crowd.

“Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew,” Sister DeManda Refund yelled out.

“Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist,” Novice Sister Maya Magination called out.

“Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant,” said Sister Scarlet Billows.

“And then they came for me, and by that time, no one was left to speak up,” Sister Coppah Feel proclaimed.

Father Bertha De Zoot then led the procession, as marchers followed his white cross decorated with the words “stop the violence” and photos of the teenagers who took their lives.

The Sisters and vigil-goers walked the streets of Guerneville with candle flames flickering in the wind, while cars honked at the procession. Finally, they reached Sonoma Nesting Company for the closing ceremony.

Novice Sister Prudence Improper banged the drum strapped around her shoulders to break the silence. While she banged the drum, and fellow Sisters released three white doves into the night sky. Sisters Saviour Applause and DeManda Refund folded an American rainbow flag in a military style and presented it to Greg Miraglia, a board member of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, as a gift for Shepard’s parents and brother.

The Sisters bestowed Matthew Shepard with the honor of their order’s first guardian angel. “We do so to thank him and honor him for the strength and unity that his memory has brought to the Russian River,” Sister Sparkle said to the vigil attendees.

Chaundra Corso of Oakland felt it was important to attend to show her support after hearing about the vigil from her friends in Guerneville. She hopes that the world learns about the consequences of anti-gay bullying and “how important it is to protect our youth and see to it that they realize they can have a happy life and be out and gay and that it will be all right.”

Guerneville resident Tristan Martini echoed the sentiment that LGBT youth facing bullying need to tell someone they trust about it and not keep it to themselves.

“If you’re being picked on, tell people. Tell your friends, peers, your teachers, adults around you [or] your parents. Don’t try to deal with it by yourself. There’s people out there who can help you so it doesn’t become overwhelming and you do something like this,” Martini said.

The vigil came to a close while Sister Sparkle Plenty wondered to herself what the world is going to look like without the teenagers who took their lives. “What if Seth or Caleb or Holly had been this brilliant mathematician or become a brilliant doctor and founded the breakthrough for the AIDS cure? What have we lost by losing these kids?”

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