Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orlando: A City United, Strong, and Loved

(Photo credit: Lin Jackson)
Editor’s note: This is a little bit different than what you’re used to seeing around our site, so please don’t feel any obligation to read it if it is not your cup of tea. As many of you likely already know, I live in Orlando, Florida. Over the weekend, a horrendous crime was committed here. And it was committed against the LGBTQ community, specifically. As the rest of the country and world look toward my city, I wanted to write down a way to process all that I’ve been feeling. 
In case you don’t already know, I’m a Christian. And so I spend a great deal of time throughout this post talking about my faith and how I am trying to cope with what happened. You can agree with my faith or disagree or feel however you would like. But all I ask is that we keep this a safe space for people to talk openly about their feelings and beliefs — just as you would if we were discussing the latest episode of Arrow. 
Thank you guys for all you’ve done for my community and for the overwhelming love and support you’ve sent our way in the past few days. Trust us, though we are still in shock over the events, we’re feeling more cared for than we have ever felt as a city. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Truly.
I’ve lived in Orlando for thirteen years now.

... okay, actually that’s a lie. I’ve lived in central Florida for thirteen years now. Up until a year ago, I lived in two little suburbs about a half an hour away from downtown Orlando. But I would tell people that I lived in that city because it was easier than trying to explain where I actually lived. Their next words would be some little quip akin to: “Oh, so you live at Disney!” to which I would sigh and resign myself to saying: “Uh-huh. I live at Disney.” The truth is, even though I didn’t live in the city itself, I always knew there was much more to Orlando than just theme parks. Downtown is bustling with art, museums, and amazing places to eat. I’ve run two half-marathons throughout downtown Orlando in the last few years. I’ve seen cobblestone roads and long, tree-lined streets. I’ve watched swans float peacefully on Lake Eola. I’ve seen the sun set over the city as I’ve eaten dinner on a terrace. It’s a beautiful city, truly. And it was always difficult to put into words why.

Until now.

Sunday morning, I woke up later than I usually do. I volunteer at my church with their children’s ministry but take summers off. That means sleeping in on Sunday mornings is always on my agenda. But when my alarm went off and I scrolled through my phone, I came across a message that someone had sent me on social media: “Post something so we know you’re all right.” Still half-asleep, it didn’t take long for me to discover what had happened. A gunman opened fire on a nightclub miles from my home, killing — at the time I woke up — a reported 20 people. Mind you, the morning before I had woken up to news of singer Christina Grimmie being shot and killed mere miles from my home as well. I was shocked and saddened at the news of both, and found it difficult to get out of bed on Sunday. I was opening every social media app on my phone, the first thought upon opening Facebook being: “Please let Pedro have posted something recently.” Though we were close in college and had drifted, I wanted to ensure he hadn’t been at the club, Pulse, that was attacked. I learned that though he frequents Pulse, he had not been there on Sunday morning.

As the news began to grow throughout the day, so did the death toll. 49 people lost their lives on Sunday morning. The more I watched, the more sickened and overwhelmed I became. I’m an extremely emotional person. I process and feel things more deeply than a lot of people do, especially in situations like these. Years ago, when I had dug into the depths of the Aurora movie theater attack, I found the Twitter feed of one of the victims. I read her last tweet.

I sobbed. It was a completely normal tweet.

She had no idea that particular tweet would be her last. And that particular element of that tragedy struck something deep and painful and heavy within me. Not since then have I felt a tragedy as deeply as I felt the one that occurred this week in Orlando. But maybe that’s because nothing, until now, has hit as close to home as this one has.

A city beautiful.

When the terrorist attack occurred in Paris, I changed my profile picture to have a French flag filter. Hundreds or thousands of us did. We set it as our “temporary profile picture,” and within a week or so, the filter was down and our photos resumed. Normal. We moved on. But Paris didn’t. How could they? They’ll never be the same again.

A late pastor of mine once said that whenever people requested for him to pray for them, he would do it on the spot. Because the moment he walked away, got into his car, and drove home, he had the luxury of forgetting. I think that’s how we all feel about tragedy when it happens anywhere but the place you live. I think we cling to the luxury of forgetting — that once our profile pictures are changed back, we can resume our normal lives. The people left behind in some other city will have to remember. But we can move on.

Orlando is now among a list of places whose people will never forget what happened. Like Paris, Aurora, Newton, San Bernardino, and too many more, we will forever remember what happened at Pulse nightclub. And we will be known by how we respond to this incredibly heartbreaking tragedy. I’m not sure that I’ve processed everything that has happened quite yet. It’s so odd — so surreal — to be feeling this spectrum of emotions, knowing that those in other cities are like I was once: sad, confused, and hurt but far removed. It’s strange to be in this place where everyone around the country and world is rallying around you, writing and speaking about your city. I use the words “strange” and “surreal” because this feels different than all the times before and the times to come when our world experiences tragedy. It’s much different being the city that receives the support, rather than the one who supplies it. The whole world is watching Orlando and we are acutely aware of that fact.

I spent most of Sunday afternoon and evening crying. I cried when I heard our church’s prayer for the victims, their families, and their loved ones. I cried watching the news and hearing the stories trickle in. I cried thinking about those who lost their lives in that club and cried more when I saw their faces. I cried thinking about how scared my community must be — how scared the LGBTQ community in Orlando must feel. I couldn’t sleep well on Sunday night, as I anxiously paced by my window, knowing that somewhere just beyond it, more hate and evil could be lurking. I knew there would be many sleepless nights ahead for those more intimately affected by Sunday’s events.

I’m a worrier. I have anxiety, so I replay situations over and over in my head. I think about “what if” way too often. But then, in most of my daily life, I don’t. I go to movies with friends. I have nice dinners. I drive to their homes to hang out. I plan trips to theme parks. I shop at a grocery store. I attend my church. I move through my life in the same way a lot of people do, not dwelling too often on thoughts of “what if” or “what could be.”

(Photo credit: CNN)

For a lot of the LGBTQ in Orlando, Pulse wasn’t just a place to go dancing and drinking. It was a community — a place that made them feel happy and safe and accepted and loved. It was their home away from home. I know what that feels like. My church is my second home. It is there that I feel embraced, no matter what I’ve done or said that week. It is there that I feel valued and understood and loved. That’s what my church is to me; that is what Pulse was to so many in Orlando. And the more I think about it, the more upset and saddened I become that a place that represented safety to so many was ravaged by hatred in an instant. But our world, in its darkest moments, is broken. And one person — one person who was filled with so much anger and hatred — extinguished life and light from a lighthouse.

I had lunch with a friend recently. And as we discussed this tragedy and its horror, I told him that all of these heartaches have left me with a harrowing realization of how dark the world can be. It’s changed the way I think. It’s changed the way I live, in slow and subtle ways. Over the past few years, I’ve begun to look for exits whenever I enter new and unfamiliar places like movie theaters and public gatherings. Why? Because my brain remembers the stories and the tragedies and the horrors, and it — just like me — has to prepare itself for an escape. If that’s not a symptom of how broken and damaged our world is, I don’t know what will be.

And yet, as all eyes turn toward Orlando, I’m proud of my community. Years ago, a crisis of a smaller, personal magnitude rocked that church I consider my home. When my parents asked — amid the crisis — if I felt God calling me to move to another church because of the problems mine was facing, I was baffled. I told her that it had never been a question in my mind: I knew there was nowhere else in the world I would rather be than standing beside my church family. And as horror rocked Orlando, Florida this weekend, I felt the exact same way. I could flee to another city and hope that violence and evil won’t ever find its way there. But I know that’s futile. I could vow to move to countries with stricter gun legislation so I would never face that fear again. But there would still be fear there waiting for me. There would still be fear following me — the kind that exists simply because the world is not perfect. I stand with my city. I stand beside those within the LGBTQ community who are facing sleepless nights, hospital visits, and uncertain futures. I will not pretend to imagine the pain their community is going through right now. I will never know what it is like to face the kind of persecution and judgement and condemnation that they do on a daily basis. I cannot pretend, for even a moment, to know their struggles.


All I know is that this community makes me want to be better. Suffering should drive us to become better people — more Jesus-focused individuals, who kneel down in the dirt, eye-level with the people the world considers outcasts. Jesus brought in tons of viewers and fans with his sermons, but he brought about hope and forgiveness with his relationships. And so now we, as those who call themselves Christians, are faced with a decision. Because it is through attacks on the LGBTQ community that we realize we’ve stepped aside, collectively, for far too long. We’ve remained silent when we should have been speaking hope and restoration to people who feel broken and weary and persecuted. This shouldn’t be the first time we pray for the LGBTQ community; this should not be the last. I want to be better. I want to be more like Jesus. I want those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual, etc. to feel like they can talk to me, honestly and openly, about their lives. I want them to feel like I will treat them like a person, not like a political agenda or a problem to be solved.

For weeks this winter and spring, someone I admire dearly opened his house to co-ed single, young adults to study the Bible. We looked, primarily, at examples of how Jesus loved people. And we talked about how we can love people — everyone, really — better. Love, we learned throughout our nights there, requires looking, feeling, and acting. It’s a process that Jesus followed whenever he encountered people in pain or in need, or just people who were wandering. Too often, I skip straight from “looking” to “acting.” I see someone, I see their problem, and I try to fix it. Too many Christians have that flaw, too. They see people as a sum of their baggage. But they don’t look at them long enough to feel anything. So they act, and try to “fix” people, call them converts, and wipe their hands of it.

Because that middle part is “feeling” — a crucial step that Jesus never forgot. And feeling? Feeling is messy. On the way home from work this week, as I felt burdened by the weight of all that has happened within my own backyard, I prayed that God would keep making me to feel. That he would continue to make my heart ache for Orlando, for the lives lost, and for my friends within the LGBTQ community, not just in Orlando, but all over the world. Feeling is hard. It is messy. But it is necessary. I have no doubt in my mind that if Jesus was walking the earth today, he would have taught a really moving sermon at church on Sunday morning, and then would have spent the rest of his day and long into the night at the hospital with hurting families. He would have looked young men and women and transgender Orlando community members — looked them directly in the eye — and would done whatever they needed. He would have met them at their point of need, no matter what they were wearing, where they lived, if they went to church in the last year (or ever), who they lived with, or their economic status. He would have handed them bottled water if they were waiting to donate blood. Heck, he would have probably donated blood and then walked outside to distribute snacks and water to those waiting. He wouldn’t have minded the sweat and grime. He would have embraced it. And he would have been forming relationships with whoever he encountered.

(Photo credit: Lin Jackson)

What Jesus did when he was alive was actively tear down walls — walls that the society in his day constructed between religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, gender, etc. He stepped into brokenness and never looked back. He ate with prostitutes and tax collectors and I’m sure he ate with members of the LGBTQ community, too. If Jesus did so, should we not do likewise? Should we shy away from those who are different than us? Or should we embrace conversations that are uncomfortable, or places we’ve never been in order to tell people that they are human. Darkness would have us believe that we need to keep to our separate boxes – our “church” box cannot touch the “LGBTQ” box. Our “Republican” box cannot touch a “Democratic” box. Our “English” box cannot cross over into “Spanish.” We bind our identities to the very things Jesus sought to tear down. He became righteously angry whenever he saw injustice. He called people out on the things in their lives that were causing them destruction. And he loved. Oh, how Jesus loved.

And Jesus showed up, too — to parties, to funerals, to dinners, to places where everyone from demon-possessed to the downtrodden lived. He didn’t wait for those who were outcast by society to step a foot into HIS home (i.e. the modern equivalent being a church). He went to meet them. He invited himself into their homes. That always struck me. Jesus never really had a permanent residence in his ministry. So when Zacchaeus, that infamous tax collector, encountered Jesus, it was JESUS who invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ home for dinner. Jesus literally just invited himself in.

He stepped into homes that were untidy, into lives that were imperfect, and everyone who met Jesus was changed for the better after they spent time with him. I wonder if we can say the same thing about us. I wonder if I can say the same thing about me, on any given Monday.

If this seems to have diverted into a slight tangent, you might be right. I began this post trying to process everything that happened on Sunday morning. And I doubt that I’ll be able to adequately process everything that happens from here, moving forward. If there is one thing I am reminded of though, it is this: God is not paused because of tragedy. God has moved in incredible ways. What one man intended for hate — to cripple a community and destroy a group of people — God has already begun to use for good. I have seen hundreds of examples of selflessness within the last few days. I’ve watched lines wrapped for hours at blood banks, as people donate to those who were injured and are in desperate need of blood. I’ve seen my own church community gather together to create care packages for the families and loved ones of victims in the hospital. What began as a goal of 100 quickly became nearly 700 care packages that were assembled. Remember that miracle Jesus did of taking a meager meal provided by a child and using it to bless an entire community? God will always use our small gifts to bring about his incredible purpose and healing. I’ve watched vigils and prayer ceremonies with people from all different races, religions, and sexual orientations come together for a community that is hurting.


Orlando is a community that is rich in its diversity and its love. Yeah, Florida is a little bit absurd sometimes and we’re self-aware enough that we can laugh at whatever silly headline will inevitably appear in a news report online next month. But we are also resilient. We’ve survived hurricanes and political recounts. We’ve made it through countless shark weeks and 1-4 construction (well, sorta). We know that we’re more than Mickey Mouse or the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We’re more than Blackfish, more than a state filled to the brim with oranges, mosquitoes, afternoon summer thunderstorms, and spring break beaches.

We are Orlando.

We are united.

And we are strong.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this Jenn. I've never visited your site before (A friend sent me a link to this post because it inspired her and she knew, quite rightly, that it would move me too.) and I don't usually leave comments but I had to reach out, from thousands of miles away across the pond, to thank you :-)

    Your description of how you tend to feel things more than a lot of people is a feeling all too familiar to me and, until today, I never made the connection between that and how Jesus would sit in the feeling part. Skipping to the acting part is easier, it hurts less. But you're right, that feeling part is crucial and not to be shied away from. I'm still working through what this looks like at a day to day level but thank you, from the very bottom of my over-sensitive heart :-)

    With much love to you from a fellow Jesus lover xox

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