ORLANDO, Fla. (RNS) We may be at the center of a metropolitan area 2 million strong, but this is still a small town. So the shooting deaths of 50 people early Sunday (June 12) at a dance club is sending shock waves well beyond Central Florida’s gay community.
My friend, Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland, the area’s largest evangelical church, was one of the first from the religious community to react to the shootings.
Hunter told NPR he was notified of the shooting around 4 a.m. by an Orlando police officer, and that shortly after he joined an emergency meeting of community leaders.
“May God give comfort to the hurting and change the hearts of those who would harm others,” he said.
Central Florida’s gay community has become increasingly important to the city’s economy, including the annual just-concluded Gay Days, centered at the theme parks: Disney, Universal and Sea World. Gays are also a political force, with candidates routinely seeking their endorsement.
Resistance to the emergence and integration of the gay community was once centered among fundamentalist Christians but has largely faded. Gays, who once worshipped mostly at one or two area Metropolitan Community Churches, are now prominent members of many faith communities.
As elsewhere in the country, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a family member, good friend or co-worker who is gay.
Social connections between straights and gays are exceptionally strong. Thus the reverberations of grief from the shooting are rippling throughout the broader community, especially among young people.
Shortly after news of the shootings hit the web, my 25-year-old daughter called in tears from Melbourne, Australia, saying she could easily have been at the Pulse when the shootings took place.
The LGBT Community Center of Central Florida, which has set up counseling and a hotline for assistance, is just blocks away from the affiliated Zebra Coalition House. That organization has been providing gay adolescents and youth with an afternoon drop-in center, mental health and drug counseling, educational and employment support, plus a 24-hour crisis hotline.
The house, which opened its doors in 2012, is emblematic of the way Orlando has supported the emerging gay community. When it opened, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer cut the ribbon. In addition to the city of Orlando, support came from corporate heavyweights with many gay employees, like Disney, Universal, and Sea World, as well as the Orlando Magic basketball team. In-kind gifts came from local outlets of Ikea and Microsoft.
The Pulse shootings have sparked concerns about what impact the Muslim faith and the immigrant parents of the shooter might have on the Orlando community and on the charged national debate on immigration.
Much as Central Florida has become more cosmopolitan, accepting of its gay friends and neighbors, it has also gotten to know the growing Islamic community.
Imam Muhammad Musri, of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, a leader of interfaith activities in Orlando, rushed to the scene of the shooting.
“We are heartbroken,” he told reporters outside the crime scene. “We are sad. It’s not time for sensationalized news, or a rush to judgment. We need to look at this issue of mass shooting because we have had one too many today.”
Imam Tariq Rasheed of the Islamic Center of Orlando also condemned the violence: “No religious tradition can ever justify nor condone such ruthless and senseless acts of violence.”
This latest, most horrific instance of gun violence will no doubt cause people to wonder about Central Florida — again. In 2012, the Trayvon Martin shooting in neighboring Seminole County turned the nation’s eyes this way. And just days ago, singer Christina Grimmie of “The Voice” was gunned down while signing autographs after a concert.
It is not an image the community wants. First Unitarian Church of Orlando opened their facilities for temporary grief counseling when the LBGT Center was overwhelmed.
Rabbi Steven Engel, of the Congregation of Reform Judaism in Orlando, said in an email to members of his congregation that the city “has always had the reputation as one of the most welcoming and hospitable cities in the world. Its diversity and sense of ‘hachnasat orchim,’ or welcoming the stranger, are legendary.”
And that, he suggested will continue.
“We are a very close community especially when it comes to people of faith,” he said. “We are standing strong and not letting a deranged gun-toting fanatic move us from the values we hold dear. Our determination for mutual respect, understanding and peaceful co-existence will not waver, but on the contrary I think it will strengthen us. But for now tears flow for the indifference and desecration of human life.”