After hate, Orlando church offers hope

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Violence and hate are not the end of the story.

Members of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, a gay friendly congregation in Orlando, demonstrated this truth after a gunman's brutal attack on a gay nightclub, which left at least 49 dead and 53 injured. The gunman also died in a shootout with law enforcement.

Many in the 4,500-member congregation spent Sunday waiting anxiously to learn if they had lost loves ones in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. That did not stop them from doing good.

The congregation already had scheduled its monthly blood drive for the day. By noon, the church had a three-hour wait of people eager to give of themselves to help the injured. By the afternoon, more than 350 people from the community and church were in line. Community restaurants and stores sent food and water to support those trying to do something to make a difference.

In short, the church lived out the sermon of lead pastor, the Rev. Jennifer Stiles Williams.

“As the news grew of the scope of the tragedy, we changed sermons to include the power of sowing seeds of God’s love extravagantly, with great abandon in order to change the world,” she said. St. Luke’s also held a special prayer service on the evening of June 12.

When it comes to how the church should be in ministry with LGBTQ individuals, United Methodists do not speak with one voice. They do share a horror at violence and a faith in God’s mercy.

United Methodists from across Florida plan to meet in Orlando on June 16-18 for their annual conference session.

In a statement, Florida Area Bishop Kenneth Carter Jr. expressed his hope that “we can discover creative, pastoral and grace-filled ways to bear witness to all — including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons — that together we are God's beloved children.”

He later added that the Florida Conference has pastors and lay leaders who already are immersed in ministry with the LGBTQ community, both within and beyond United Methodist churches.

“In God's providence many of these deep relationships exist in the Orlando region. So we minister from credible and established relationships with people we already know and love.”

St. Luke's United Methodist Church has that credible relationship, said Bradley Roberts, a gay member of the congregation. Roberts, who works for Walt Disney World Company, lost two co-workers in the attack.

"St. Luke's for me has always been a safe place, and in this case, a safe place to grieve," he said. "The church has always been one that has its very DNA steeped in full acceptance and hospitality for everyone, as I think church should. And that's why I attend there."

He said the church will continue to have its doors open to individuals who need counseling or simply a place to talk and be heard.

The Rev. Bob Bushong, the superintendent whose district includes Orlando, shared on Facebook his prayer that people respond “out of a sense of being united as the human family made up of multiple faith perspectives, of differing sexual orientations and races and cultures, of opposing political perspectives.”

He told United Methodist News Service he expects annual conference will include a focus on the tragedy.

“Sometimes a tragedy brings together people who aren’t together otherwise,” Bushong said. “And that’s what I think a lot of us hope for.”

Williams urges United Methodists in the wake of this act of hate and terror to “be hope.”

“Be present with people with love, and active ways of offering support and encouragement,” she said. “Find ways to sit at the table with people who are different and hold holy conversations that speak grace. Start speaking up against violence and bullying toward people who are different.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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