On anniversaries of great events and tragic ones, it is always interesting to think back and remember what was happening. 365 days ago, I was at church when I saw one of our members, an executive in the Orlando United Way, leave in a hurry to attend to pressing matters because something was happening near downtown that would shake the very foundations of who we are.
It was only later that morning as the news reports started rolling in that “several people” and then more than a dozen…and finally 49 of our fellow residents were gunned down in cold blood at the Pulse nightclub, more than 50 wounded, some severely enough to require long term hospitalization. Yes, the worst mass murder in our nation’s history right here in sunny Orlando, home of Mickey Mouse, Fantasyland, dancing dolphins, and Harry Potter.
Today, our church, Epiphany Lutheran, joined with churches all over the world in tolling our bells 49 times in recognition of all those who perished. The outpouring of love from the community told the world a lot about who we are as a community. We pulled together in the face of hatred and tragedy and printed shirts with a simple message of love: #OrlandoStrong. There were tributes, memorials, people lined up to donate blood to the wounded who would need it. The killing had multiple layers of hatred…prompted by hatred of LGBT residents, many of whom had gathered at Pulse to dance, listen to music and forget some of the taunts, bullying, and ostracism over the years. Just to enjoy for a moment in time…only to be gunned down in a hail of hatred. The fact that the gunman was earlier to have pledged his allegiance to followers of radical Islam made the crime even worse, because it was hard to separate the contempt of all Americans from the contempt of LGBT Americans and Hispanics, many of whom gathered for Latin night at the club. “Layered hatred” is what I call it.
Yet over the past year, our community has labored to restore love and reject hatred. Our church, for 25 years a bastion of largely conservative Lutheran theology, has taken up and passed a message of being Reconciled in Christ. That means ALL are welcome who believe in Christ. Whether white, Latino, black, lesbian, gay, transgender, Asian, wealthy or poor, baby Christian or long time follower. ALL who believe in forgiveness, and the redeeming power of Christ to blunt all hatred, light the candle of God’s love for us all. We are all His children, and no matter your background, color or political inclination, you are welcome to worship with us, and be treated with the same kind of love and concern and comfort that you deserve as such a child. RIC churches are not that common, but I am pleased to be part of such a congregation.
Today, I also attended a wonderful ceremony at Seminole State College celebrating the life of young Luis Vielma, a student who died at Pulse last year. “Not forgotten,” was the message. For lives of promise and vigor and love to be cut short by an angry madman is becoming all too common in our society. But to be remembered is all any of us can do. And when memorial flowers fade, candles burn out, and memories themselves fade, we must remind ourselves of what needs to be done to overcome hate and transform our lives.
Today, I also spoke with a woman entering our profession, and when I mentioned I was headed to the memorial, she said she had a friend who was injured at Pulse, remembering the moment the gunman shot multiple times into the woman he killed immediately at his side, and survived a gunshot wound to the leg that temporarily paralyzed him. Imagine the trauma of that moment.
The same God of all creation worshipped since the beginning of time teaches that love overcomes hatred…that peace is to be sought even in the midst of war…and that seeking to understand is much more important than being understood. So, as we wrap up one year following Pulse, my advice to all is this: Orlando is a great home, a largely peaceful place to raise a family, to work, play, and go to school. We have things to work on, and one of them is to accept our neighbors, especially the ones who do not look like us, talk like us, or think like us…with a spirit of love and seeking to understand free of condemnation and judgment. Seek to understand, my friends. Seek to accept. Seek to love. You will sometimes be disappointed, as the folks who lost their lives in the Pulse tragedy were. But through seeking to accept, understand and love comes great power, wisdom and truth. The truth will indeed make you free.