June 12, 2016 marked one of the darkest days for the nation. Orlando was now home to the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. As a born and raised Orlandoan, I do not want to let that fact define the city and nor do the rest of the citizens of Orlando. When people come to Orlando, they see the magical theme park side filled with family fun in the sun, but there is a whole other side to the town – the real side. Before the shooting, I didn’t think of Orlando as a united city. To me, you were defined by your neighborhood. You were a Waterforder, a Union Parker, a Winter Parker, etc. We did have many sports teams we rallied around, most especially the Orlando City Soccer Club. You cannot go on your daily commute without seeing an Orlando City magnet on the back of a car. Beside that, the community seemed fragmented. But after the shooting, I began to see why Orlando was called “The City Beautiful."
On my commute to work to Universal Studios that Sunday morning, I saw the droves of people lining up to donate blood. I witnessed people on the corners of intersections waving signs saying “LOVE IS LOVE. ORLANDO STRONG!” I did not see one person not wanting to do their part to help in the aftermath of the tragedy. I felt the city was united for our community.
Now coming to work at a theme park, you have to keep a smile on your face. You are there for the guests. In light of the news, I did not know what work that day would be like. It was normal, to my surprise, but people were glued to the news when in the break room. Later that evening, I was told that one of our Universal team members had lost their life during the shooting.
It felt unfathomable. I came came home from work with absolute despair.
The next day, the city allowed for a vigil to be held at the Dr. Phillips Center. I decided to take the SunRail. I had never taken the train as Orlando was more of a car city. Every passenger was going to the vigil. As I was riding, I got to see more of the city and saw that true beauty. Signs were everywhere: Orlando Strong, Orlando United, Pray for Orlando. I felt the city uniting more and more.
I attended the vigil by myself, but everyone there treated each other like family. People handed out water, hugged friends and absolute strangers, waved the flags of the United States, Florida, and the LGBT community, played beautiful songs, wrote powerful messages, and most of all – cared for each other. People came from all walks of life: Black, white, gay, straight, Democrat, Republican, Christian and Muslim. Many city and organization leaders spoke at the vigil including Mayor Buddy Dyer, Equality Florida’s Carlos Smith, and President of the Brady Campaign. We lit candles for the victims. The bell of the United Methodist Church rang 49 times, one time for each victim. As an Orlandoan, I feel closer to my city and I now feel that we have a community. It’s important that we keep the victims and their families in our thoughts and prayers.
I attended my internship the next day at a Congressman’s office and I was shocked to see what messages we received. Over 99 missed calls. Messages left calling for banning of all Muslims because “they are all here to hate and kill us." Messages saying that Congress should approve an all out attack on the Middle East. All messages of hate. We cannot become them. This is not the lesson we should take from the shooting. It needs to be a message of love and acceptance. That’s how we will overcome. That’s how we become strong. That’s how we unite.