(Hayley Tsukayama/The Washington Post)

ORLANDO —  A Sunday vigil at the Joy Metropolitan Community Church — known for welcoming lesbians, gay men, and people who are bisexual and transgender — was organized quickly to heal and unify the community in the wake of the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

But city officials asked the church to rethink its plans to hold the event in its small sanctuary, worried that it could draw unwanted attention, the church’s senior pastor said.  “They wanted us to wait,” the Rev. Terri Steed Pierce said.

Yet the attack had hit so close to home, both figuratively and literally, as Pulse nightclub is less than two miles away from the church. So, in a measure of hope and defiance, they gathered together. They prepared to mourn.

They dotted the rows of the church’s chairs with tissue boxes.


(Hayley Tsukayama/The Washington Post)

And the people came pouring in. More than 200 were seated in the church, others were  standing along the walls and an overflow crowd was seated outside. Church officials estimated there were at least 500 attendees.

Nearly 20 clergy members gathered together as a show of unified faith, sitting and preaching at a pulpit with a backdrop of rainbow banners. Attendees were handed rainbow and black ribbons to pin to their shirts.

The congregation expressed its collective grief in prayer and song. The Orlando Gay Chorus joined the attendees, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “True Colors.”

Congregants sang several hymns together as well, raising their voices even as tears welled up. Prayers for the victims, their families and even their attacker were spoken and applauded.

One clergy member read a prayer from the prophet Muhammed, calling for peace.

Yet despite the heartfelt mourning, there was almost a note of defiance in the speakers’ voices as they said that this tragedy would not shake their faith or derail the fight for equality. One church official, the Rev. Nancy Wilson, called for a ban on assault weapons. The church’s founder, the Rev. Troy Perry, joined via teleconference, telling members of the congregation that he had wept all day but that they would not be beaten.

“We will continue the struggle,” he said, his voice breaking.

Family members gathered at a hotel in Orlando to receive updates on the status of their loved ones following the worst mass shooting in American history. (McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

Pierce had some choice words about the shooter, and those who persecute the church’s community.

“You have to be strong to be gay … that dude picked on the wrong group,” she said, to ringing applause.

Clergy members from of Orlando’s African American community and its Latino and Hispanic communities also lent words of comfort to the gathering, calling for unity in the face of hatred — and hammering home the assertion that God loves everyone.

Pierce said the vigil was carefully planned to strike a hopeful tone.

“Someone said it was kind of celebratory,” she said. “But we wanted to show there is hope, that we can claim hope.”

The church, which was established in 1979, normally has about 200 attendees on Sundays. Several people in the crowd at the evening’s vigil were among those handing out water bottles, cookies and ordering pizzas outside of the hospital for the waiting relatives of those inside.

With the names of the shooting victims still largely undisclosed, there is no way to know whether members of the congregation are among the dead and wounded. But it was clear that many attending the vigil were still wondering the whereabouts of their loved ones and had sought the support of this community of friends and peers.

One victim of the shooting did join the vigil and walked up the aisle with difficulty to his seat, supported by his friends. He received a standing ovation.

The victim, who gave his name only as Orlando, said he hid in the bathroom for three hours, and at one point had to play dead. 

“Every time I heard a shot I prayed it wasn’t taking a friend of mine,” he said.

 After the vigil, members of the congregation embraced one another and lingered to offer comfort.

While the national and international news media had descended on the close-knit church, those who stayed after the vigil largely spoke to one another. And in those little gestures, the strength that the pastors had spoken of with passion during the vigil became a sort of silent strength.

A simple hug. A reassuring pat on the shoulder. A tissue offered in comfort to wipe away a tear.