The Orlando International Airport bustles with excited children hugging their favorite characters to their hearts; it’s surrounded by palm trees and a sunny, humid atmosphere. Where were the signs that this city that had just days before experienced the worst mass shooting in U.S. history? As we left the airport we saw them: an American flag and a rainbow flag flying half-mast. Barber shops, law offices, highway billboards, theaters–these places displayed rainbow hearts and #OrlandoStrong signs publicly and proudly.
In the wee hours of June 12, forty-nine lives were taken and fifty-three people injured when a gunman armed with an AR-15 rifle opened fire inside Pulse, a nightclub serving the Latinx and LGBTQ community. A safe haven was targeted, decimated. Its owners and workers–more a family than a business–mourn and suffer. They have no jobs; they feel–though not at all deserved–guilt and worry.
In New York, we heard the news. We were shocked. The worst mass shooting in U.S. history carried out in a place that had been both a safe haven and a beacon of freedom for so many who are marginalized, dehumanized, ostracized, and targeted with discrimination and violence. We mourned.
And I wasn’t sure what to do next. As a queer woman and as a rabbi–and simply as an empathic person–I felt both called and hesitant. I wanted to jump on that plane to Orlando, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I arrived.
The short version is: the NYU Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, where I serve as a rabbi, went to Orlando. We hugged folks. We listened to their stories.
A delegation of two staff members and three students traveled on Wednesday. What we discovered is this: Orlando is a beautiful city that has pulled together to show support, solidarity, and unity. Churches and counseling centers have opened their doors nearly around the clock to offer free trauma counseling in Spanish and in English. Thousands of people attended a vigil on Monday night in front of the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center; its lawn has become a memorial, with flowers, messages, cards, mementos, and images of the slain laid out on the ground. People gather, add their condolences, pray, and weep.
A beacon of giving has been the Center, Orlando’s LGBTQ Center. Mountains of water bottles, granola bars, non-perishable food, toiletries, and other much-needed supplies are pouring into this hub of direct service and community support. The moment a volunteer posts to social media that an item is needed, a car pulls up behind the modest building to deliver it. We encountered dozens of volunteers, some of them staff members like Ben who direct the activities, some regular volunteers like Laura who simply take charge when they see a lull, and some first-time volunteers who came with hands ready and hearts open. The outpouring of support was staggering. And, yes, we helped: we sorted supplies, assembled boxes, stood at the ready.
But there was more important work to be done: asking questions, listening, and hugging. Each person we met that day had a story: “My girlfriend and I had our first kiss at Pulse; we could easily have been there that night.” “I don’t feel safe anymore.” “If I slow down and stop, I don’t know what I will do.” “It’s so hard to hold up for our students when the staff are also mourning.” In some ways, what we did that day was nothing: we offered an ear, a shoulder to cry on, a hug. But in other ways, it was everything: we traveled from afar because we cared enough to listen. We told people they are valuable and showed that love conquers hate.
And of course there is more to do, and the Bronfman Center will be keeping in touch with Orlando’s LGBTQ Center to ensure that we provide help when and how we can, and in ways that are most needed. If you are able to travel to Orlando, you will be needed to help form a human chain to protect families of those slain from hateful protesters who plan to attend the funerals happening throughout the coming week. If you can donate money, you can help support families of the murdered and the injured who are living in hotels in Orlando and are in need of meals and supplies. We will keep you informed as best we can.
Our day in Orlando ended at Valencia College, the alma mater of Amanda Alvear, Oscar A. Arancena-Montero, Cory James Connell, Mercedes Marisol Flores, Juan Ramon Guerrero, Jason Benjamin Josaphat, and Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo; these seven young people were killed that night at the Pulse. Their college community–four hundred strong, and more watching via closed-circuit television–gathered to honor them and celebrate their lives, to mourn, and to unite against homophobia, transphobia, racism and islamophobia. I was honored to speak some words of (I hope) comfort at the vigil, sharing the stage with student leaders like Krystal Pherai, LGBTQ community leaders, college administrators, and a local imam. Krystal urged us all to remember that acting as an ally is not easy and it requires us to move well beyond our comfort zones: “Talk to those you see as the ‘other.’ Learn from each other. Have difficult, crucial conversations. Speak your truth.” The City of Orlando sits shiva. For forty-nine souls. It already rebuilds its sense of security and unity. It refuses to blame an entire religion for one man’s horrific actions. It acknowledges that homophobia and transphobia come in many forms, and that our individual communities must examine our actions. Do you want to know whether you are ensuring that the LGBTQ folks in your community or family feel safe? Then don’t wait for them to come out to you or reach out for help: Tell them and show them that you value all lives.
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi serves as Manager of Religious Life at the pluralistic Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University. This blog was originally posted on Rabbi DeBlosi’s blog.