Editor’s Note: This is a two-part story on prayer vigils and how three churches opened their hearts during times of tragedy. This first story revisits a vigil held for the Pulse nightclub shooting of one year ago.
Renowned theologian Karl Barth once described hands folded in prayer as “the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
In recent years, clergy members across the Florida Conference—particularly in urban centers that have seen their share of the world’s chaos—have put that belief to the test, holding public prayer vigils in the wake of unthinkable tragedies.
An interfaith service is held in the days following the Pulse nightclub tragic shooting in June, 2016, at FUMC of Orlando. Victims of the tragedy are remembered in photographs at the church's alter. Photo by Curtis Compton.
The day after the Pulse nightclub shooting June 12, 2016, in Orlando, thousands of heartbroken, angry people slowly drifted into the downtown quad between First United Methodist Church of Orlando and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Forty-nine people had been killed when a gunman opened fire at the club, located about a mile away.
Within hours the square overflowed with mourners of all ages and backgrounds gathering in the scorching heat for no other reason than to be in the presence of others who were just as shattered.
“There was this overwhelming need to be together,” said Pastor Emily Edwards, minister of congregational life at First Church. “I think it’s naturally, instinctively part of how we are made.”
Edwards and other First Church clergy passed out bottles of water, not entirely sure of the best way to minister to the growing and distraught crowd. “It was really one of those moments where you experience the Bible coming to life…because it turned out to be like the story of the feeding of the five thousand,” she said.
“Slowly but surely, people from the congregation just started showing up with water and snacks.”
Although the vigil wasn’t organized or sponsored by First Church, its staff and members firmly believed they were being called to serve the people of Orlando. “We were in the place where everyone was gathering,” Edwards said. “We just had this overwhelming sense that we needed to fling wide the doors and let people know that we loved them.”
Across the square, in every direction, someone was in need of comfort, so the people of First Church made the decision simply to be present in midst of all the pain.
“Really, there were just a lot of people that we looked at and said, ‘You are loved. We are glad you are here. How can we help you?’” Edwards said. “People just kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you.’”
Strangers cried together, sharing their sorrows and fears in ways that only hours before might have seemed foolish.
“The way I saw people praying was very embodied,” Edwards recalled. “Just the conversations and the emotions were part of the act of praying. The gathering, the talking and the listening—that was prayer. People were crying out!”
More than a year later, Edwards still can’t fully explain why that gathering—or others like it—are so powerful. “That’s part of the mystery, but I do believe it is the Holy Spirit that is alive in every person,” she said.
“That is what binds us together and what draws us together. That is why we hold vigil. That is one of the ways God is active and dynamic in our world.”
Edwards believes that vigil helped channel an outpouring of love across Orlando, while also highlighting the humanity of the individual Pulse victims. “It was a healing thing,” she said. “In the midst of all that darkness and death, life and love really did surface and come through.”
Edwards and other First Church clergy recently relied on that same power as they helped mark the one-year anniversary of the Pulse shooting in a variety of prayer services. And proclaiming God’s love in the face of the city’s ongoing pain and sadness is the role of the church, Edwards said.
“We’ve been entrusted with the gospel,” she said. “We do have the calling to be present, especially in the midst of deep tragedy, to proclaim good news, to proclaim hope and life and love.”
--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer based in Pensacola
Editor’s Note: Part two of this story will publish online June 28. Included will be a church holding vigils for homicide victims in Jacksonville and remembrances of vigils held in Ft. Lauderdale for the tragic shooting of innocent people in a Charleston, S.C. church June 17, 2015.