welcome-orlandoJust six months ago I was in Orlando, Florida taking a vacation, enjoying the sites, the food, and the hotel pool.  During my week in Orlando, I would drive to the various “tourist” places, and see the land that was to be so magical and exciting.  Mickey ears were everywhere, the Universal globe adorned tons of coffee mugs, and you could not help but see in every place the glimmer of joy that surrounded the many people from all nations.  When I reminisce about my short time in Orlando, I can’t help but now think of how easily it could have been me in a place that was ransacked by terror.

A little over a week ago, I entered worship after hearing over the radio that twenty-some people had been killed in an act of terror in Orlando.  I didn’t know the when, where, or why at that time; and I briefly mentioned it during the prayer time.  But, we know the story now; we’ve read the articles, watched the news reels, and have been a part of vigils of prayer.  How easily it could have been me.

How could it have been me?  I walked through downtown Orlando, I traveled by airplane, I visited the theme park.  I did any normal thing any tourist and traveler would do.  And the image is stuck in my head, when, on one of the warmer days during that January week, I entered Universal Orlando Theme Park.  There were people everywhere, being funneled from the parking deck into three single-file lines.  There had to be thousands of people entering the park at the same time … all being searched, scanned, and emptied of any personal value.  We were no longer individuals … we were all people placed into a commonality of, “you might be a terrorist.”  Now, I am not saying by any means there should not have been security that day, and I am thankful for the measures.  But how sad it is that we live in such a time where any and everyone is a target.  How sad it is that a place where the first thing we would like to encounter is excitement, and child-like fun, was actually a place of being a little nervous and anxious – and the “what if.”

Even if I had not been in Orlando in January, this story of active hatred toward a particular group of people comes close to my heart; as it was almost the one year anniversary of the killing of nine children of God at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  How easy it is to place ourselves in various places and see how at any moment we are all capable of being within our last moments on this earth.  Now, that may sound scary and a bit far-fetched; yet, acts of hatred toward different walks of life are capable of happening in any place we frequent.

The realization of the “realness” of Orlando came to full connection on Friday, June 17.  I had the great opportunity to gather for worship with colleagues, brothers and sisters, at the Memorial Chapel on the grounds of Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.  The worship was facilitated by members of The Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church Reconciling Ministries Network.  It was a space of safety and refuge for brothers and sisters of the LGBTQ community, and all who felt compelled to worship without judgment and fear for who they are.  As myself, colleagues, and friends entered the chapel, we were handed a strip of paper containing the name of one of the 50 (including the shooter) killed on Sunday, June 12 at Pulse in Orlando.

“Christoper Andrew Leinonen, 32.”  That’s all my slip of paper said.  I didn’t know Christopher, or his family, career, relationship status, etc.  All I had within my fingertips was the name of someone’s son, someone’s friend, someone’s colleague … a human being created in the image of God.


As you look at this slip of paper, from the angle and perspective I looked at it; imagine nothing more, assume nothing more, than this man being gone forever in the presence of this world due to the hatred of who he may or may not be: gay.

Christopher Andrew Leinonen is only about two years older than I am.  This is a young person, full of potential, moving forward in life, so much more to accomplish.  What about me?  If I were to be killed today, would I have used every piece of who I am; would I have used all the potential God has graced me with?  Would I just be a slip of paper between the fingertips of someone I never met?

I invite you to get to know Christoper:

When Brittany Sted met Christopher Andrew Leinonen six years ago working at a mental health facility where he was a counselor, they quickly bonded over similar interests.

They both went to the University of Central Florida, both were vegetarians, and shared a birthday and a love for electronic music. They were particularly into an artist known as deadmau5, and they often shared dating experiences.

In the past year, Mr. Leinonen, 32, met 22-year-old Juan Ramon Guerrero, and they turned out to be a perfect match for each other, Ms. Sted said.

“They were sort of like little Swiss Army knives, always balancing each other out and pulling out whatever they needed,” she said.

On Saturday night, two friends asked Mr. Leinonen, who went by Drew, and Mr. Guerrero to join them at Pulse. As the night was winding down, the men were ready to leave. The two friends wanted to use the bathroom, so Mr. Leinonen and Mr. Guerrero waited for them on the dance floor, Ms. Sted said.

A short time later, the gunman stormed into the club. The two friends escaped, but Mr. Leinonen and Mr. Guerrero were among the 49 people killed.

Constantly joking, Mr. Leinonen had worked in mental healthcare. He was a film connoisseur.

“He has an entire wall of all these DVDs and foreign films, most of which I’ve never heard of,” Ms. Sted said. “He could tell you all about them.”

He liked anime and Star Trek, and was known to have obscure trinkets, Ms. Sted said. He also had a passion for the game Dance Dance Revolution, playing it at home and in arcades.


Early in the morning, on Sunday, June 12, around 2 am, 320 beloved children of God were gathered in Orlando in their place of refuge, a safe haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. They gathered in a place where they faced no rejection, no discrimination, nor overzealous and misguided religiosity, and where they thought they were safe from hatred, ignorance, and bigotry. Yet, a gunman entered, filled with hatred and contempt, not just for LGBT people, but indeed for all humanity. And because we are all created in the Imago Dei, the divine Image of God, we too suffer from this atrocious act—this odious abomination—of hatred and murder, in which 49 children of our Creator—49 of our sisters and brothers—died, and 53 suffered injuries. Today, we pause to remember their lives. Together, let us stand, for a moment of silence.


The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Today as we pray to the Lord, I’ll end each petition with “Lord, in your mercy,” and you will respond, “hear our prayer.”

Let us pray…

Loving God, you created all humankind in your image, bestowing upon us your manifold gifts. Indeed, gracious Lord, we were beautifully and wonderfully made, and we give you thanks for our diversity and for the unity of Spirit that draws us together this day as we begin our Holy Conferencing. We ask, merciful God, that you forgive us for those times in which we have robbed others of the knowledge of their own divine belovedness, either by our thoughts, words, actions, deeds, or lack thereof. We ask, that you forgive us for our sins of self-righteousness, intolerance, and bigotry, often hidden deep within our hearts. Search us, O Lord, and purify us of anything that is not like you.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We give you thanks for the earth, which you formed from chaos yet bestowed with beauty and grace. We praise you for the beauty of creation, found in every corner of our land. May we be ever faithful in our care for all you have given us, being diligent to protect our environment, and to flee from all activities that bring to it harm simply for commercial gain.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We remember your words, telling us that we are the light of the world. We ask for your grace that we might be courageous to let our big lights shine before others, so that they may see our deeds of mercy and compassion, and that you, O God, may be glorified.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Merciful God, you care for the marginalized of society—the widow and the orphan, the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, those who are lonely, and in prison. May we care for the least of these in all that we do.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Healing God, you tell us to pray for one another. We remember the sick among us, in our homes, communities, and congregations. We ask that you continue to bring advances through medicine, but that you also act with your supernatural power to bring healing and comfort to those who we now name in the silence of this moment.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

You have raised up from among us, faithful leaders, who fear you and who seek your guidance as they shepherd your church. We ask your blessings upon our Bishop Larry Goodpaster and his wife. We ask that you continue to guide the Cabinet and all leaders of our Conference, that we may be faithful in our mission of following you, making disciples, and transforming the world.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We give you thanks for the Church Universal, and specifically for The United Methodist Church, and for the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. We ask that you empower us with your Holy Spirit, that we may speak words of truth in love, and that we may accomplish all that you have set out before us these days.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We offer these prayers to you, Almighty God, through your Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit; for you are One God, now and forever.




Christoper Andrew Leinonen, 32 https://static01.nyt.com/images/2016/06/14/us/14victims-leinonen/14victims-leinonen-jumbo.jpg