ORLANDO, Fla. — Walking into the LGBT Center of Central Florida reveals a chaotic scene of activity. Reporters and TV crews are greeted at the door, then hustled into position to interview officials. Farther back, a room labeled simply “FOOD” is the gathering place for volunteers to exchange hugs and reassuring words over coffee and assorted treats. In the back room, a sweaty assembly line of workers fills a truck with donated water to be delivered to area blood drive centers and crisis centers.
One thing you may not see, however, are tears. The volunteers here cried those out yesterday.
“Yesterday was non-stop tears and hugs and finding out the status of friends,” said Nicole Elinoff, a six-year veteran staffer of the Center. “Today we’re in crisis mode, business mode, getting things done and taking action. The feelings are there but covered in tasks that need to be done. It’s been a whirlwind.”
She and others are busy gathering donations of water and other items to distribute. They have established a Go Fund Me page to raise money for victims’ families who are suddenly faced with bills for funerals, health care and travel costs. They are coordinating with airlines to get flights for families from out of town. The Center is also facilitating crisis counseling off site.
“As someone who’s been in this community for a long time, I’m mind blown that Orlando is the site of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history,” Elinoff said. “The community is so strong. We are heartbroken but we are going to get through this together.”
Despite the heartbreak, Elinoff stressed the importance of responding to hate with love.
“The message we want to send is to love each other,” she said. “Give friends hugs, support each other, because at the end of the day you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Love conquers hate and that is what we are demonstrating here.”
Despite talk in recent years that the gay community is now safely integrated into the American mainstream and no longer in need of LGBT-specific bars/centers/clubs/bookstores, the attack on Pulse nightclub highlights the importance of physical places where people can be themselves.
“Community centers are still important for LGBT people,” Elinoff said. “We need to have a place where they can feel safe. There’s no place like home.”
Not everyone in the Center on Monday was a veteran staffer. Kris Talbot, a law student, said Monday was her first-ever visit to the Center. She came to volunteer her time. Why did she show up?
“My city just got a black eye,” Talbot said. “This is our home, a real community, it’s not just Disney. It’s like seeing someone you love getting punched in the face and you want to do something to help.”
She’s still tracking down classmates who might have been at the club Sunday night and she has been to Pulse a few times herself.
“What happened is not typical of Orlando. I came here for college from Virginia and stayed here because it felt like a safe place for people outside the norm. Please don’t let this deter you from coming down, visiting, working, getting educated here.”
Her message to angry loners susceptible to online recruiting by ISIS and other anti-LGBT groups?
“Get out of the rage bubble, this was aimed at our community but could have been aimed at anyone. We isolate ourselves and learn to hate people who aren’t like us. I don’t think this was about religion. I think this shooter got stuck in a rage bubble. And this is what happens when you don’t touch people who are different from yourself.”
Another face at the Center on Monday advocating love over hate in response to the attack was Rev. Debreita Taylor of Oasis Fellowship Ministries, an LGBT-affirming ministry where “all are welcome.” She leaned against a wall in the Center, surveying the unthinkable scene, then said she’d had something of an epiphany last night.
“My message is love. Period. Love. Period. There’s nothing in the word of God that faith leaders can go to that teaches hate,” she said. “It’s the simple scripture we learned as kids, John 3:16, everyone knows it, for God so loved the world. We need to learn to love. Love one another. Everyone who loves is born of God. It has no place for judgment, criticism, hate, no place for rejection or prejudice or biases.”
Taylor said that one of the victims who has been publicly identified, Eddie Sotomayor Jr., 34, had been to her ministry.
“Have faith and believe that evil and hate can be eradicated one person at a time,” she counsels. “How do you treat someone? How do you embrace someone who treats you wrong? We all bleed, laugh, hope and have great victories and major defeats. And so, you know me, even if you don’t know my name — I’m you.”
Taylor — or “Pastor Brei” as she’s affectionately known here — has operated her ministry in Orlando since 2005, catering to a largely LGBT congregation. She sees much work ahead in light of the Pulse massacre.
“The work isn’t over,” she said. “The work happens in the grassroots, not in the legislative floor. It happens one person at a time. I’m you and you’re me. You can’t say someone of a certain demographic doesn’t belong. God loved, period. And he acted in love and that’s what we need to do.”
Oasis, 3404 N. Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando, will open its doors 6-8 p.m. all week she said, because “people need a place to go. I care about you and we can be here together. No one needs to be alone.”