On June 12, 2016, I woke up and checked my phone like any normal morning. Browsing Facebook, I saw multiple people posting the same story:
“Mass Shooting in Orlando Nightclub, killing 49.”
Sadly, I’d grown somewhat desensitized to stories of mass shootings because of how tragically common they’d become; however, I was rather shocked to see that this particular shooting had happened in my current city.
Shootings and terrorist attacks always seemed to take place many miles away from me. I’m originally from St. Louis but was working a temp job in Orlando at the time. It felt weird to see something so horrific happen so close.
But then I kept reading the articles, and the lines that followed haunted me:
“The shooting took place at a gay nightclub called PULSE.”
I was shocked. This wasn’t just another shooting or terrorist attack at a school or government institution. This was a nightclub; most, if not all, of the victims were gay.
Gay people had been specifically targeted in the Orlando PULSE shooting.
A cold, heartless thought popped into my head: they had it coming. I instantly regretted even thinking it.
No one deserved to die that way.
In my pre-YOB days, I still felt a lot of self-loathing and internalized homophobia over my sexuality and had yet to come to terms with it.
I spent that whole day unsure what to think or feel about PULSE. Dismayed by seeing so many people brutally murdered, of course, yet conflicted about how I felt about my convictions with my own sexuality.
I watched the social media world buzz over the shooting. For the first and only time in my life, Facebook sent me the foreboding “marked safe from” message. My temp job’s shift exchange group on Facebook got plastered with pleas, including this one from my coworker:
Could someone please, please, PLEASE take my shift today?! One of my friends was killed at PULSE last night and I can’t come in. Please someone help!
During a morning meeting, my managers told us to let them know if we needed any help or needed to talk in the wake of the shooting. Work proceeded as usual.
It was strange, seeing things proceed so normally after the worst terrorist attack since 9/11. And it all happened a mere fifteen minutes away from me.
I watched the chaos of the whole event unfold on the break room televisions. The whole nation started to mourn, and I watched all of the tributes come in. I saw a YouTube video of a moment of silence take place at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in front of the castle.
Even the whimsical, ragtime music of Main Street USA was silenced. I’d never seen the Magic Kingdom so silent.
My roommate was a Christian, and he offered all sorts of prayers on social media. This was a newer roommate from another one I blogged about, and I often wonder why I never really connected with him since he was also a Christian and seemed to take his faith more seriously.
His response to the tragedy was far more Christ-like than mine.
A now dear friend from YOB, Tony, also exhibited a superior Christ-like reaction. I’ll let him explain his experience in the wake of the PULSE shooting:
We arrived in Orlando and immediately went to the PULSE nightclub. The entire block was sectioned off by law enforcement. Locals gathered at the closest corner store parking lot and stared and wept in disbelief.
We could feel the cloud of darkness, loss, fear, and terror. It weighed heavily, and I let the magnitude of what happened sink in.
News media buzzed around us as the whole world watched the reports of 49 killed and 53 wounded just 200 feet from where I stood. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t react. I could hardly breathe.
We heard about a drag benefit show for the survivors at Southern Nights, another staple gay club of the Orlando community. As we entered, my anxiety began to rise. I hadn’t entered a gay club in sixteen years since leaving the “Side A” life for my new, passionate relationship with Christ.
How would I do? Would I be tempted? Would they hate me? I became very aware of my desperate need for the Spirit of Christ to help me.
As we entered, my mentor/friend dropped a sizable amount of money into a collections hat for survivors of the shooting. The music boomed, the lights and smoke filled the club. The place was full of mostly gay men, embracing one another, crying together, shouting affirmations toward a group of survivors seated on the floor in front of the main stage.
As I got closer, I saw them wearing those now recognizable black PULSE t-shirts. I also saw bandaged arms and legs along with wounds to faces and necks. The survivors looked somber, broken, but thankful to be alive.
The drag queens put on their absolute best acts: songs about survival, overcoming, not giving up, loving one another as a family. We prayed for many people — a few in full drag.
One had just finished a riveting performance, and as we prayed, we asked for God to reveal Himself through all of the pain and loss. We asked Him to bless them beyond measure and to heal their land. To replace terror, fear, and hopelessness with His amazing love and grace. Tears flowed, and mascara ran down their faces.
On multiple occasions, I heard people say they’d never met Christians like us. Not one person turned down prayer. Not one person was angry. I felt a deep sense of community and love.
After the show, I joined my friends on the dance floor and danced my heart out. We danced because we were alive. We danced because we weren’t going to let terror win. God was with us and I wondered how everyone else felt about God and the Body of Christ. We visited the memorial at Orlando Health.
A man had built 49 white, wooden crosses, one for each victim, lining the driveway to the medical center, each cross covered with flowers, personal effects, balloons, notes, signatures of loved ones, prayers, and candle vigils. Almost all of the victims were Hispanic, so Puerto Rican and Mexican flags also lined the row.
We held hospital workers who grieved because they couldn’t save the lost. We held the LGBTQ pastors who had come in from all over the country to try to bring hope and make sense of the loss. Samaritan’s Purse had a full operation in place. One pastor soaked my shirt with her tears. We’d never met before, yet we grieved together.
I could feel my heart welling with emotion. We walked across the street to a pizza restaurant, and the gravity of what I’d experienced hit me — my breath sucked from my chest, tears bursting from my eyes.
I ran to the bathroom and sobbed. The ache in my soul and the groans that followed were from God. He loved these people. His heart was broken. And He let me feel a portion of His heart for them.
I could not stop crying. The images of the young faces flashing in my mind. The weight of the pastor’s burden that soaked my t-shirt. I was undone.
We visited Joy Metropolitan Community Church, the largest LGBTQ church in Orlando. The worship was electric. The mantras “Love Wins” and “Orlando Strong” were everywhere. They welcomed everyone, and they prided themselves for it. They held up one another in authentic community.
I reflected a lot about how so many of our friends had formed their own community, whether at a club or at a church, because they felt they had nowhere else to go. The average church in America rejected them based on their “lifestyle.”
Their communities, whether right or wrong in theology or behavior, were places of safety and acceptance. In one of those places, 49 were massacred.
What would be the Church’s response? Would the survivors finally be welcomed? What would it take to put aside differences of opinion or belief and give the love of Christ when and where it was desperately needed?
My life was the one changed forever.
I’m desperately in love with the ones I know God loves, no matter who disagrees or doesn’t get on board. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel, and if you must, use words.”
Carry the love of Christ to the hurting and broken with a loving boldness, and watch Him draw you and others to Himself and to one another, as He always intended.
It’s interesting looking back on the PULSE shooting three years later. I have since found YOB, become a blogger, and met many wonderful fellow “Side B” SSA/gay Christians. I’ve been filled with much more compassion.
It’s sobering to recall my once icy heart, built by pre-conceived notions and fueled by an ugly, hurtful culture war in our nation and in the church. But now I mourn.
I see now that I’m not so different from the people who died at PULSE. Like me, the victims grew up feeling different from other people.
They felt feelings of fear and confusion over their sexualities: what it meant for their future and how they would reconcile it with their faith or grow into society. They may have been bullied and cast out; they may have felt isolated and lonely.
Like Tony wrote, the victims may not have been accepted by their churches, and places like PULSE were some of the only ones they could find love and community.
PULSE parallels how places like YOB and Revoice have become refuges of love and community for me.
Three years ago today, 49 lives were snuffed out by an act of pure evil. Let’s take a moment to pray today, and may our love snuff out the evil.
How did you react to the PULSE shooting three years ago? Have you wrestled with “internalized homophobia”? Where have you found refuges of love and community, inside the church and out?