Orlando - The relationship between the church and gay liberation has been long and often tortuous. But on Tuesday evening, all of Orlando needed to heal.
Members of the city’s LGBTQ community were invited up to one church’s altar to be prayed over. Many accepted, rose from their seats and stood tall in front of the congregation.
The proud gesture at the First Baptist Church of Orlando said much about how the reaction to the massacre at the gay nightclub Pulse on Sunday has measured a shift in social attitudes.
“Our community, for far too many, has never witnessed a sight like this, a church where they can come, be prayed over and not be forced to change who they are,” said Victoria Kirby York, national campaigns director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, as she cast her gaze over the large gathering. “For some people this image that I’m staring at right now exists only in their dreams.”
York, who grew up in the area, made reference to the Bible: “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
She said: “It didn’t say whosoever who’s black, or whosever that’s white, or whosever that’s Latino or Asian or indigenous. It didn’t say whoever that’s cisgender or transgender or lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or questioning. It said whosoever, full stop.”
There were shouts of “Amen!” from the audience in the cavernous modern building.
York continued: “So in our prayer, I urge you tonight and every night to pray for those graceful conversations that will help bridge the gap in communities and in families here in Orlando and across the world.”
Signs of defiance after the tragedy are all over Orlando, best known for theme parks such as Disney World but with an increasingly vibrant downtown economy. Outside a Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealer, a sign says: “Pray for Orlando,” while outside a McDonald’s another says: “Orlando strong.” A giant American flag flies at half mast outside Toyota while towers glow in rainbow colours. The Congo River Golf attraction proclaims: “Pray for Orlando. In God we Trust.”
The church vigil heard from pastors representing black, Latino and white congregations. People rose to their feet to applaud a young man introduced as Joshua, who survived the massacre.
Buddy Dyer, the city mayor whose voice can be heard welcoming visitors on the airport skytrain, said: “We’re all struggling with the same questions. Why did this happen? Why did it happen in our city? How could it happen in our city? How can we possibly get through this? These are difficult questions at times like this … I certainly don’t have the answers, but I do know one thing. We will get through this and we’ll be stronger because of it.”
Religion shows there is light in darkness, he continued. “We will get through this because in our city’s darkest hour, our city’s very darkest hour, our residents have shown that they are that light.”
These, he said, included first responders, those who carried victims to hospital, doctors, blood donors and children. Dyer also said a new assistance centre would open at a downtown stadium on Wednesday to support affected families.
In a reference to the theme parks for which the city is known, he continued: “There is some painful irony in the fact that our city, so closely associated with joy and love, known the world over for joy and love, now has to wear the title site of the worst mass shooting in American history. We cannot change what happened, we cannot walk away from it, but we can show those who would seek to harm us and the world that joy and love conquer violence and hate, that light conquers dark.
“Hate may have visited our community and it’s taken the lives of innocent people. It has shaken us to our core and broken our hearts but hate will not define us, hate will not defeat us, because we are one Orlando united.”
A day after thousands gathered for a vigil in downtown Orlando, the church event was, for many, another important show of unity.
Lisa Anderton, 48, an artist, knew one of the victims, Cory Connell, from the Publix supermarket where he worked. “He was a wonderful young man,” she said. “He was the kindest young man I’ve ever met. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Initially everyone was in shock. Now they are bonding together and uniting to see how they can help the families heal.”
Terry Raburn, 66, a church minister, was cautiously optimistic about the future of the church’s relations with the LGBTQ community. “That’s a work in progress. I wouldn’t say everyone’s involved in that but I would say many are here to show grace to members of every community.”