The June 12 terrorist attack at Orlando's Pulse nightclub that left 49 dead and scores wounded has prompted an unprecedented show of love—including handwritten letters, emails, artwork and other expressions of sympathy from churches far beyond Florida.
"It was unexpected, but we were really glad for the outpouring from our United Methodist connections, really around all of the United States," said Dawn Fleming, executive director of marketing and connect ministries at St. Luke's UMC in Orlando. "We received letters and cards and calls and emails, just letting us know that other congregations were in prayer for our city, for our citizens, for the victims and for our congregation and our leaders in the wake of this terrible tragedy."
|Hundreds of letters expressed heartfelt support and sorrow for the Orlando tragedy and demonstrated the strength of the connectional UMC.|
Expressions of love, sympathy and support came from as far away as Oakland, Calif., and Lexington, Ky. Soon after the shooting, the East Ohio UMC Conference sent a packet of around two hundred letters in response to a suggestion made at the conference's annual meeting that was underway around the time of the shooting.
Another distant church in a small Minnesota town also sent about 200 handwritten "love letters.” Members of Northern Light Church sent their heartfelt support to the Rev. Jad Denmark, minister of care at St. Luke's UMC in Orlando, one of the largest churches in the Florida conference, with average worship attendance of 1,800 and 4,800 members.
Denmark's wife, Shelly, is minister of discipleship at First UMC in Orlando, where the congregation includes a Pulse nightclub employee. First UMC also held funerals for a number of the shooting victims.
Denmark was so touched by the letter from Northern Light that he sent an email to Northern Light pastor Rev. Cullen Tanner thanking him for the thoughtful communication. Tanner’s small Midwestern church has an average worship attendance of 75.
Denmark read the letter to his Orlando congregation on a Sunday soon after the tragedy: "Dear beautiful stranger: Some days, I forget my worth. Some days, I feel unloved, and those times, I think of you—the good you do every day. You are loved. We are loved, forever. With love, Northern Light Church, Ramsey, Minnesota."
The two ministers, 1,600 miles apart, exchanged additional emails, each asking the other to pray for his community. Northern Light is only 20 miles from the site of the July 6 officer-involved shooting in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
First UMC of Orlando, which has served the city for more than 130 years, posted on the church's Facebook page a gallery of photographs of the collection of letters it received following the tragedy. "We received (and continue to receive) notes of prayer and encouragement from churches all across the country. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this beautiful display of love and support" states the caption.
"We got lots and lots of different responses" following the tragedy, said the Rev. Tom McCloskey, senior pastor at First UMC. In addition to the hundred-plus letters, the church also received countless emails, even gift cards. Those gift cards are being distributed to former Pulse employees.
"The employees at Pulse, they basically, all of a sudden, went to being unemployed," as the nightclub remained closed well after the June 12 attack, McCloskey said. The church made initial contact with those former employees soon after the shooting.
"Our initial gift was just a way of saying, 'Look, here's some gift cards from Publix grocery stores.' Then we made an appeal and we began to get gift cards from all over the country," he said. The latest stack of gift cards received were distributed to former workers during the second week of August.
"You see them (the shooting victims) in a different way, I think, than you do those that were employed” (at Pulse) "yet they're all caught up in the same tragedy," the pastor said.
|Pastor Shelly Denmark (left) and Pastor Emily Edwards (right) show a painting donated by Platte Woods UMC in Missouri. The inscription: “Praise be to the Lord for he has showed me the wonders of his love when I was a city under siege.” Psalm 31:21 NIV|
One of the unique items sent to First UMC came from a suburban Kansas City, Mo., church, Platte Woods UMC. The church sent a painting, and a photograph of it was posted on the Orlando church's Facebook page. "It's going to be hung here in the church and will be a part of our decor as a reminder," McCloskey said.
The outpouring of love was much appreciated, but not totally unexpected.
"I think that's one of the strengths of our connectional system: We have a means by which we can connect with each other," McCloskey said. "I wasn't particularly surprised. I think the amazing piece was how the responses would come in at a time when we were doing a lot of stuff based on faith.
“It was comforting, but it was affirming to know, oh, wow, people are thinking, and they are seeing and they are hearing and we're not doing this alone, we're doing it with each other."