Hope and healing: Community comes together in Sterling to honor Orlando shooting victims

Members of the faith community and Northern Virginia residents attended a service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sterling Monday night and participated in a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Orlando massacre, the nation's worst mass shooting. Times-Mirror/Rick Wasser

Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael rings a gong 50 times in remembrance of the 50 murdered people in Orlando during a service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sterling Monday night. Times-Mirror/Rick Wasser

The first ringing of the bell Monday night at Sterling's Unitarian Universalist Congregation echoed through the standing room only crowd - a powerful reminder of just one of the lives lost early Sunday in Orlando in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

Then came a second ring, a third and a fourth until 50 chimes filled the area with people of all faiths, races and sexual orientations.

Some bowed their heads, others openly wept as they tried to make sense of the violence in Florida where 50 people were killed and 53 others were injured by a lone gunman, Omar Mateen, 29, who opened fire at Pulse, a popular gay nightclub that was holding its Latino night.

"Two-and-a-half weeks ago, I stood in this very spot and welcomed the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C. It was a grand event, celebrating the great leaps forward this country has made in civil rights for all," said Paul Roche, the Sterling Unitarian Universalist board president. "Here we are once again, but for a terribly different reason " on behalf of our congregation, I will say that our heart breaks for the LGBTQ community, our Muslim brothers and sisters whose families must once again bear the burden of suspicion and hate and for all peace-loving people everywhere."

Those who attended the event were given tags with "love" painted on them and a number - one for each victim of the shooting.

For the Rev. Daniel Velez Rivera of Leesburg's St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church, the tragedy in Orlando hit too close to home.

Rivera's journey to ministry, he said, started at a gay nightclub in Boston about 25 years ago during a Latino night. It was there, on the dance floor, where he met his best friend and his husband.

"Our encounter is one of the reasons why I'm alive and here today," Rivera said.

The reverend said he went to the nightclubs to encounter other Latino gay people "to dance to our music and essentially to have a community that knew me, unfiltered and unedited."

That community, he said, taught him to love himself for the way God made him without fear.

During that time, Rivera began to train to be able to educate the public about the AIDS virus that, at the time, had reached crisis level in the 1980s. For Spanish-speaking individuals at the time, there was a void in AIDS education and Rivera watched as his brothers and sisters continued to die from the virus.

"So I cut my teeth, so to speak, doing grassroots community education in the bars," Rivera said. "Today " as a minister, I also believe that we must have a holistic approach to living in holiness. It was at a gay bar like Pulse that I learned to be a community leader and a community organizer."

The reverend said it could easily have been him 25 years ago in a gay nightclub fighting for his life against a lone gunman filled with hatred.

"I'm here today to pray for the souls of the murdered victims, for their families, their best friends, for their one-night stands " and yes, even for those whose eyes they caught on that Saturday night into Sunday morning but didn't have the courage to say 'hi.'"

Almost every religion was represented at the Monday event, all offering a message of hope and love, not hatred, even for those who want to harm others.

"Neighbors and community members, these are all titles because we live in a society, so I'm going to try and break that barrier and just say fellow brothers and sisters, fellow human beings," said Gupreet Singh, vice president of Loudoun Interfaith Bridges. "For the color of blood that runs through all our veins is red " we are pulled together at this moment of sadness to share the sorrow that this tragedy has brought to all of us here and in Orlando."

As the sun set on the event, individuals holding candles, walking from the Sterling congregation across the street to face the intersection of Davis Road and Atlantic Boulevard, stood silently in solemn remembrance, immune to the blinking traffic lights and honking horns.

"God tells us in the Koran, that if you take the life of one it's as if you've taken the life of all of humanity. And if you've taken to save a life, it's as if you've saved the life of all humanity," said Rizwan Jaka, board president of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society. "What happened with 50 people killed and 53 people injured, that outlaw, that criminal took the life of all of humanity and we stand against any type of bigotry and hatred of any community ..."

Those who attended Monday night's vigil stand in solidarity off Church Road during a candlight vigil. Times-Mirror/Hannah Dellinger

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