One year ago, a deranged killer walked into the Pulse nightclub and targeted members of our LGBTQ community on Latin Night. When the horror was over, 49 of our friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, had been taken from us.
As our community reflects back on the past year, much is going to be made of reliving the tragedy, and retelling the stories of the victims and their families as we honor them.
As I considered what to write for Watermark’s audience, I wanted to do something different. You don’t need to be reminded of the names of the victims and their stories; you carry them with you every day, along with the burden of being a member of a community that is the target of hate.
It’s my sincere hope that our LGBTQ community is able to look back at the 12 months since the shootings, and find solace in the many acts of love, unity and kindness that were born out of the tragedy and the role our LGBTQ brothers and sisters have had in showing the world what it means to truly love one another.
In the days after Pulse, there were dozens of times where I was stopped in my tracks, witnessing the power of that kind of love. One instance in particular took place at the large-scale prayer service where pastors from different churches and denominations gathered with members of our LGBTQ community and members of the public who simply wanted to cry, to pray and to be together. In times of tragedy, we often turn to spiritual leaders for comfort and to better understand the events we’re dealing with.
That night I witnessed something extraordinary. One of Orlando’s most highly-regarded pastors said he wasn’t sure how to handle that task because he had never been a part of a persecuted community, never felt the vulnerability that goes along with being an openly gay person in our society. He went further, telling the audience that he was searching his heart and asking himself if anything that he had done made him complicit in any way with what had happened.
The pastor then asked a young LGBTQ leader to help him find that voice and that perspective. Over the course of the next few minutes, this young woman told the audience about the persistence of death in the gay community; from suicide, to AIDS to hate crimes. She talked about her own personal experience of looking into the faces of people who had been kicked out of their churches and their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. She finished her remarks with these powerful words: “Far too many in our community have never witnessed a sight like this, a church where they can come, be prayed over and not be forced to change who they are or who they love. For some people this image that I’m staring at right now exists only in their dreams.”
This graceful conversation between a religious leader who admittedly struggled with questions around homosexuality and a young LGBTQ leader who had the courage to speak honestly to men and women of faith was both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time. It showed that even in a place like Orlando where we embrace diversity, inclusion and equality, we still have work to do. More than anything, this conversation embodied what it means to be One Orlando… to be a city where the work of overcoming the challenges that confront us begins from a place of love, unity and respect.
Over the last 12 months when I’ve spoken publicly about Pulse, I often borrow a line from another local pastor; that Orlando has been anointed to show the world how to combat hatred and evil, to promote equality and embrace diversity. We don’t just have the opportunity to do this. We now have the responsibility. We owe it to the victims of Pulse and their families. We owe it to ourselves.
As the work continues in fulfilling this mission, I know we will do so arm-in-arm with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.