Touched by the kindness of Muslim neighbors after his boyfriend was killed in the San Bernardino terrorist attack last month, Ryan Reyes became an unplanned spokesman against religious intolerance.
On Tuesday he’ll take his message to Washington, where he’ll sit in the balcony at the State of the Union address, a guest of President Obama.
For Reyes, it will be a moment with potential for healing — for himself and, he hopes, the country.
“If we ostracize people, they can’t help us,” Reyes said in an interview with The Times. “If we embrace, we can all help each other. I’m hoping this can unify us as a nation.”
Near Reyes in the balcony, a seat will be left open for his boyfriend, Daniel Kaufman, and the hundreds of other people who have died from gun violence over the last year.
Obama’s address won’t be about his crime agenda or other specific policies, according to White House officials.
Rather, in his final national address on the state of the country, the president plans to exhort Americans to embrace an optimistic view of themselves and the nation in 2016 and beyond his presidency.
Part of the message, aides say, is about uniting Americans and working to realize their shared potential.
Reyes drew the attention of the White House for what he has been saying on television and radio in the month since the San Bernardino shootings.
Reyes last saw Kaufman alive Dec. 2 when he drove him to work at the Inland Regional Center, where Kaufman trained developmentally disabled adults.
Kaufman, 42, died when Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire on a holiday party at the center.
Reyes learned of Kaufman's fate after almost a full day of conflicting reports about what had happened.
Friends and family quickly moved in to help Reyes through his grief. Among them were enthusiasts of the local Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where Kaufman had volunteered.
Then, as mourners gathered for a memorial service a few days after the attack, four bearded men in tunics appeared on the sidewalk, Reyes recalled.
The men were leaders in the local Islamic community. One was a member of the mosque attended by the San Bernardino shooters.
Reyes told them about his relationship with Kaufman. During a quiet conversation on the perimeter of the crowd, he accepted their gifts of flowers and tearful condolences.
“I was so moved,” Reyes said. “They risked their own personal safety to come and pay their respects. It really meant a lot to me.”
Alarmed by some of the anti-Muslim sentiment he had heard in the aftermath of the shootings, Reyes began talking to local television and radio journalists. He then appeared on the “Dr. Phil” show to share his message of tolerance.
A week ago, a White House official called to invite him to Washington.
Reyes will sit with First Lady Michelle Obama and other honored guests in the balcony.
“Right now we are extremely divided,” Reyes said. “My best hope is that maybe we can all come together as a country.”
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