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I came with empty hands

We’re still recovering from the Pulse nightclub shooting here in Orlando. Orange Avenue, the main thoroughfare the club faces, is open again after being closed for more than a week during the FBI investigation. Businesses along there that had to close are operating again, and the news crews have thinned out.

Those of us not directly affected have started getting back into our routines. Those who are directly affected are still caring for hospitalized loved ones and attending funerals. There was one yesterday. There will be one this evening. And another Saturday. And one on Monday.

Our grief journey is a long one.

We took a step forward on that journey June 19, at the candlelight vigil held at Lake Eola Park. If you only know the Disney World part of Central Florida, you’ve probably never seen Lake Eola.

Lake Eola. The Disney Amphitheater is on the right. Photo courtesy of the City of Orlando.

Lake Eola, from the east shore looking west. The Disney Amphitheater is the blue-green band shell on the right. Photo courtesy of the City of Orlando.

The park is surrounded by busy streets on all sides, lined with office buildings and condominiums. I used to work in an office building across the street from the park on the north side and often took a walk around the lake during lunchtime. The sidewalk is a mile and a quarter around, and I can walk it in a little over twenty minutes, if memory serves. There’s a law firm on the east side and a Greek Orthodox church on the west. Make of that juxtaposition what you will.

The lake is pretty shallow and murky, but it sustains cypress trees, cormorants, and swans. The fountain in the southwestern part of the lake is a symbol of the city. On the western shore of the lake is a band shell called the Walt Disney Amphitheater.

The Tuesday after the shooting, an interfaith memorial service was held downtown. I intended to go, but introverted out at the last minute, partly because I didn’t want to go alone and partly because I didn’t want to deal with downtown traffic on a weeknight.

When one of my friends from church posted afterward that she had been there, I was sorry I missed it. I was talking about this regret with another friend, Karen, and she said she’d let me know if there were any vigils she planned to attend so I could come along.

A few days later, she e-mailed me the link to the Lake Eola vigil. SunRail, a commuter train that normally only runs on weekdays, would be operating that night specifically to get people into downtown. No traffic is a good deal.

So Sunday evening I parked my car at the SunRail station near my house and waited. The platform filled quickly. The train was packed. And we were all there with one purpose. No one would have been there for any other reason.

Boarding the train. Photo by Kristen Stieffel.

Boarding the train. Photo by Kristen Stieffel.

Karen lives on the north side of Orlando, so she met me at the Church Street Station downtown. It was a short walk from there to the park.

When we reached the park, it was almost — but not quite — a festival atmosphere. Music was playing, but it was poignant tunes like “Candle in the Wind.”

People were carrying candles and flowers. I had brought no such thing. Hadn’t even thought of it.

Two large plastic banners were laid out on the grass. The first read Hate Will Break Us Apart. The second read Love Will Keep Orlando United. Someone had scattered Sharpies all along the edges, so people could write messages on the banners.

Karen signing the Orlando United banner. Photo by Kristen Stieffel.

Karen signing the Orlando United banner. Photo by Kristen Stieffel.

So I picked up a marker that someone else had brought and wrote, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted.”

As Karen and I walked toward the amphitheater, we passed a group of folks representing One Orlando who were passing out candles. I took one. Tried to give a donation. They wouldn’t take my money.

Near the buzzing generator trailer for News 13, a girl in a One Orlando shirt was passing out bottles of water with the TV station logo on them. I had left my water bottle in the car, so I took one.

The crowd was dense—shoulder to shoulder. Before we even reached the band shell, it got so tight it was hard to move. So we squeezed through a gap between a metal railing and the generator trailer and moved into a grassy area underneath a tree. We had a little more elbow room there, but it was still packed, from there all the way back to the street and, I later learned, even into the street, which was closed.

Being an introvert, I would normally shudder at such a thing. But that day, it was good. Karen and I and 48,998 of our friends were gathered with one purpose. In that moment, we were family. United.

Candlelight Vigil at Lake Eola in Orlando. Photo by Kristen Stieffel.

Candlelight Vigil at Lake Eola in Orlando. Photo by Kristen Stieffel.

Between the news helicopters overhead and the generator behind me, I had trouble hearing the speakers. But I heard enough to be stirred by the sentiments of our local leaders.

See CNN’s story to hear excerpts from the vigil.

Among those speakers were our local Three Wise Guys: Reverend Bryan Fulwider, who said a few words about reconciliation, Rabbi Steven Engel, who blessed us in Hebrew, and Imam Muhammad Musri, who, though it should go without saying, condemned the attack and all acts of terrorism, and then closed his remarks by saying, “God bless Orlando, and God bless the United States of America.”

As we lit our candles and lifted them, hot wax dripped down onto my hand. Karen tapped my shoulder and handed me a paper cup. The guy behind her had seen me and passed it forward.

If I had been smart, I’d have put out the candle, gotten it into the cup, and re-lit it. But I wasn’t. I tried to get the lit candle into the cup, but the hole in the bottom of the cup wasn’t big enough. The guy in front of me took the cup and enlarged the opening for me.

I came to that vigil with empty hands. And at every step someone gave me what I needed to participate in  worship, If I can call it that. The memorial wasn’t meant to be a religious ceremony, because it was to include everyone, but many of the speakers, not just the Three Wise Guys, spoke of faith and prayer.

Candlelight Vigil in Orlando. Photo by Karen Ragsdale.

Candlelight Vigil in Orlando. Photo by Karen Ragsdale.

And it certainly felt like worship to me, especially when a rainbow appeared over the lake. Faint at first, it grew dazzlingly vibrant—I wish a camera could capture for you the brilliance and clarity of it. And I felt God was blessing our efforts that day. There’s no way that a rainbow at that place, in that moment, could have been a random meteorological phenomenon. It was a blessing, and the crowd cheered.

Photo courtesy of Central Florida News 13

Photo courtesy of Central Florida News 13

I arrived with a broken heart and empty hands. I left with a buoyant spirit and renewed faith.

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About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

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