ORLANDO | On June 11, the eve of the one year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Bishop John Noonan and local religious leaders joined together for A Call to Prayer at St. James Cathedral, Orlando. As family and friends mourned, prayed for and remembered those who died and those who are still suffering, the service proffered comfort and sustenance.
On June 12, 2016, a gunman opened fire within Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando. By the time police were able to secure the building 50 people had died, including the shooter, and 53 more were wounded. It was the worst shooting attack America has ever experienced.
The service began with the song “Lord, Make Us Servants of Your Peace,” the lyrics recalling St. Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer and setting the tone of healing and restoration. Bishop Noonan said he was following the lead of Pope Francis noting, “We need to walk with and accompany everybody—there is no exception. We treat everybody with dignity because they are made in the image and likeness of God and that’s what it’s all about.”
Certainly, on the night of the shooting, there was no distinction. Diocesan priests and local clergy from several denominations came to the aid of those injured and in shock as they awaited news of their loved ones or waited to be taken to the hospital. Catholic Charities of Central Florida raised funds to help survivors and sent bilingual staff members to the Hampton Inn downtown where family and friends were waiting.
Imam Muhammad Musri, Ph.D., president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, gave the reflection citing three challenges with which society is faced: mental illness, the problem of hate and gun violence. He quoted startling statistics from Florida ranking 50th in funding of mental health to the fact that in the last year, 20,000 Americans took their own lives out of despair. He also mentioned with sadness the recent mass shootings at mosques and other places.
“The disappearance of faith from everyday lives of people is the major reason,” said Imam Musri. “Faith, I believe, is the primary provider of hope. God is a God of hope and as faith communities we have to do our best to support our people…” He concluded saying, “I pray the faith community will lead the way to address these things through faith, through prayer, through education and active engagement in our society. I pray to the most merciful and compassionate God to help us rise against these challenges.”
As candles were lit remembering those lost, Maria de los Angeles Rivera, who lost her son Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera in the shooting, observed in quiet reflection. She flew from Puerto Rico to take part in the local events recognizing the anniversary and was grateful for the service. She told of how her faith had sustained her in this past year.
“Three months prior to the shooting, I took several workshops on prayer. The last one was called “Desert” where one connects God with nature. That has helped me a lot,” she said. Eric was one of her four children.
Vicente Figueroa had come to support one of Eric’s childhood friends. “As a homosexual male,” he said, “I believe that we should unite and give thanks to God for our lives.” He added, “As a man raised in the Catholic church, I understand that these ecumenical services, which act as a commemoration, are a place where various denominations can join in the name of God, to help us be able to heal. After all, it is the same God, our one God.”
As the service came to a close, the prayer of St. Francis was now spoken, rather than sung. Pastor Dr. Joel Hunter of Northland, A Church Distributed, suggested to those assembled that “…it would be better if the prayer becomes a seed so that it blossoms in all of us as a different lifestyle.” He added, “I submit to you that we will not have a different community until we live different lives.”