Dean Jan Love speaks to Candler alumni in Orlando on June 15."Stay Strong." "Love is More Powerful." "Love Always Wins." These are some of the phrases hand-written on posters at the impromptu memorial in the park between City Hall and the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando, less than two miles from PULSE, the popular gay dance club where a gunman murdered 49 people and injured 53 others early Sunday morning. I visited the memorial along with Candler alumni when I was in Orlando this week for a previously planned visit to the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, which is meeting there this week. When I agreed to the trip some weeks ago, I could not have anticipated what a holy experience it would turn out to be.

I arrived in Orlando eager to learn how people of faith are responding to the horror of this massacre in their midst. Less than four days after the killings, it was evident that pastors and lay people alike—including many Candler alumni—continue to mobilize, seeking to offer presence, prayers, consolation, facilities, water, food, hugs, and anything else members of the stunned and grieving community need as they mourn and try to process this horrific event. The obvious exhaustion of those ministering was no match for their determination to embody love, hope, mercy, and peace to a community still in the throes of shock and grief.

One of the many signs at the Orlando shooting memorial.

Knowing the healing power of communal worship, clergy from First UMC organized an interfaith worship service as an opportunity for all to share in their grief, find community, and witness hope and solidarity in the face of tragedy. People flocked to the service, a poignant illustration of widespread longing for common ground in an era of extreme polarization and all-too-frequent mass violence. The diverse group of leaders who organized the service decided deliberately, despite some discomfort, to name and pray for all 50 who died, those who were murdered as well as the one who murdered them, along with the injured and all the families and loved ones.

Like a number of other churches, St. Luke’s UMC held a prayer service the evening of the shooting. St. Luke’s has long welcomed all who seek to follow Jesus in the work, worship, witness, and leadership of the church, including members of the LGBTQIA community. Many of the parishioners at St. Luke’s are friends and family of the PULSE victims, which makes the entire tragedy even more personal. So when St. Luke’s learned that anti-gay protestors plan to come to Orlando to demonstrate at the funerals and memorial services of the PULSE victims, a lay leader reached out to the biker community to solicit their help in creating human and machine shields—a biker barrier—to protect the mourners from the slurs of the demonstrators. She’s received enthusiastic support from area motorcycle clubs who are willing to help in this way.

These acts of compassion illustrate the love of neighbor that Jesus preached and inspire us all to stay strong—together. People of different faiths, clergy and lay, straight and LGBTQIA, believers and those who cannot believe, joining to create safe space where all can minister to one another, building a stronger community where the sacred worth of each person is recognized and welcomed.

I awoke this morning back home in Atlanta, a bit distant from the immediacy of the shock and grief but still very moved by it. I reminded myself yet again that one of the strongest and most powerful dimensions of Christ’s command to love God and neighbor is harnessing the righteous rage that inevitably and appropriately arises over incidents like the Orlando massacre, the Charleston massacre, and so many, many more. If we are to overcome the homophobia, racism, violence in the name of religion, routine access to military-style assault weapons, lack of access to meaningful mental health care, and other such forces that destroy people and communities, our love for God and each other must be lived out in the tireless pursuit of lasting societal change, an investment in the kind of compassion that moves us toward justice.     

My time in Orlando was short. We prayed, sang, and cried together only a brief time. And the deepest prayer was that we, as Christians, stay strong together in witnessing to the power of love to overcome evil, and stay strong in working for justice for all God’s people. We do that well at Candler, and I’m grateful to walk alongside you as we work with God and each other for the transformation of the world.

Top photo: Dean Jan Love took this photo of Candler alumni from the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church laying flowers at the city memorial to victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting, across the street from First United Methodist Church of Orlando on June 15, 2016.