PHOTOS: Church bells fill downtown Orlando as Pulse shooting hits 2-year mark

By : Layla Ferris
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ORLANDO | The First United Methodist Church in downtown Orlando tolled its bells 49 times at noon June 12 to honor those who died in the Pulse nightclub shooting two years ago.

“It’s such a beautiful thing to know that your loved ones will never be forgotten,” Robin Maynard-Harris says to nearly 100 people who gathered at the church.

Maynard-Harris, 48, is the committee chair for 49 Bells, which is part of the LGBTQ-focused nonprofit organization One Orlando Alliance. The tolling of the bells is part of One Orlando Alliance’s Acts of Love and Kindness movement, which centers on engagement and support through acts of kindness during the 49 days leading up to June 12.

As each bell tolled, Maynard-Harris joined Mayra Alvear and Maria Wright as they read the names of the 49 people who died in the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Alvear’s 25-year-old daughter Amanda died at Pulse, along with Wright’s 31-year-old son Jerry. The two mothers came to One Orlando Alliance last year looking to partner with the faith-based community and honor their children.

“These moms are so strong,” Maynard-Harris says. “It’s not any of us at One Orlando Alliance or even the church; it’s these victim’s family members and these survivors and their resiliency and their courage that makes sure we never forget.”

The First United Methodist Church has rung its bells on three occasions to honor those who died at Pulse. First the bells rang during the Pulse vigil held just days after the shooting in 2016. Then an official bell-tolling ceremony at the church was held in 2017, followed by this year’s event.

First United Methodist Church Rev. Emily Edwards, 32, says this year’s event was fueled with a growing energy and passion centered on remembering and honoring the victims of the shooting.

“The toll of the bell not only represents the loss and the death toll, but it is also the sound of hope in the midst of darkness that life and light come from,” Edwards says.

Anna Eskamani, who is running to represent District 47 in the Florida House of Representatives, says there is still a long recovery ahead of the Orlando community.

“I mean, we’re still healing,” Eskamani says. “I think that’s step one, is making sure we have enough resources for all our community members — whether those who were directly impacted or impacted in different ways — that they have the resources to manage their grief and that will always be available to them.”

After 49 names were read and 49 bell tolls rang out, a hush fell over the crowd during a moment of silence. Afterward, members of the church handed out 49 rainbow pinwheels, which named each person who died in the Pulse shooting. The pinwheels were displayed in front of the church and left to shine in the sun.

Eskamani says events such as the bell tolling remind her of her purpose. She acknowledged the need for more pro-LGBTQ legislation. She also reiterated her call for stricter gun reform legislation as she described what made this year’s bell-toll ceremony different from last year’s — the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead.

“Issues of gun violence … we’ve done nowhere near what we need to do, and so that remains,” Eskamani says. “My rally cry is to make sure that we do our part to honor those who are no longer with us through action.”

Before the echo of bells filled downtown Orlando, Maynard-Harris announced that 149 institutions across the world joined the ceremonious bell tolling. All 50 states were represented, with the last state joining just minutes before Orlando’s event began.

Eskamani says the global commitment to building a more peaceful world is shown through the effort of First United Methodist Church and other institutions across the world.

“I think we have absolutely shown that Orlando is united,” Maynard-Harris says.“I believe even in the face of much adversity, whether they’re the lawsuits or people that want to show hate, they’re outnumbered. They’re outnumbered by love. And love in fact wins, and it was proven here today.”

But Maynard-Harris says she wants this event and others like it to be a movement, not just a day of remembrance.

“We want you to think of the 49 and do something,” she says.

Photos by Layla Ferris.

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