Christian support of gay victims called ‘transformational’ for Orlando

Central Florida’s religious conservative community has long had a fractious relationship with Orlando’s growing gay population.

But a Tuesday prayer vigil at the city’s First Baptist Church for the victims and families of the 49 people killed and 53 injured in the shooting at the Pulse nightclub has Orange County political leaders talking about a “transformational” moment in the area’s history.

“Last night, seeing all of those faith based leaders, all of the pastors that came together and who said they want to hug and they want to pray for those in the LGBTQ community who are either directly affected or indirectly affected: That’s transformational,” Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said Wednesday.

Days after the early Sunday shooting, hundreds of worshipers and ministers from at least eight conservative congregations gathered at First Baptist, a sprawling church with state-of-the-art video screens and choirs whose harmonies ring with recording-star quality.

The First Baptist ministry,which opposes same-sex marriage, is used to hosting Florida Republican candidates every election season. There, GOP office-seekers find a ready audience of likely voters while endorsing what are seen as traditional family values.

But purple ribbons handed out by ushers during Tuesday night’s service, symbolized that “we stand together,” said Pastor David Uth.

He said, “Orlando is not going to be defined” by the shootings.

Many parishioners agreed.

“Time doesn’t change. But people change,” said Lynn Musich, 53, an office manager who has been a First Baptist member for more than 40 years.

John Alphin, a retired Defense Department worker who ushers at the church, said parishioners over the years have taken a more accepting view of Orlando’s gay community. The bond has deepened since last weekend’s shootings, he said.

“The church doesn’t condone the lifestyle, but we don’t hate the people,” Alphin said.

Victoria Kirby York, a director with the National LGBTQ Task Force, addressed the crowd Tuesday night, calling them “such a beautiful sight.”

“We can make good come out of this,” she said.

Kirby York told the audience that gays make up a disproportional share of the homeless and suicide victims in America. Many LGBTQ individuals suffer the emotional pain of being rejected by their families, she said.

“For our community, far too many have never seen a sight like this,” she said from the pulpit. “Finding a place where they can be prayed over for who they are, that place for many just exists in their dreams.”

Central Florida generally remains a conservative area politically and socially. But the city of Orlando stands out as younger, more ethnically diverse, and is home to a large gay population that has changed the look of many neighborhoods and shopping districts.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a former Democratic state senator, addressed the prayer vigil Tuesday night, saying, “Hate will not define us. Hate will not defeat us, because we are one Orlando united.”

Like many ministers who spoke, Dyer said, “We will get through this and we will be stronger because of it.”

It was also a time for reflection for some ministers and parishioners.

“I’ve never been part of a persecuted community,” said the Rev. Joel Hunter of Northland Church.

He went on to say that he is now struggling with the kind of fire and brimstone messages that many pastors have fired at the LGBTQ community from pulpit.

“Is there anything that I did that was complicit in this loss?” Hunter said he has asked himself. “I won’t presume to know what the LGBTQ community is going through.”

In another sign of barrier-breaking, a Chick-fil-A store in Orlando abandoned its traditional Sunday closing this week to prepare food for people waiting in line to donate blood in response to the shooting.

Still, there remains a threat that Westboro Baptist Church, the Topeka, Kan., anti-gay organization, will arrive in Orlando to protest at upcoming funerals for Pulse victims.

And John Stemberger, an Orlando lawyer and head of the Florida Family Policy Council, said he is angry about the backlash he has received on social media sites after saying he was praying for the victims of the nightclub shooting.

Stemberger led the 2008 campaign in Florida that resulted in a voter-approved constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned such state bans in its 5-4 decision approving gay marriage.

“Christians should be prepared to be attacked and persecuted if they do not bow down and pledge allegiance to the gay pride flag and all it supposedly represents,” Stemberger said Wednesday in an email-message to supporters.

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