At noon on June 12, dozens of churches around the world rang their bells
in honor of the 49 victims who were killed at the gay nightclub Pulse last year, including one of the churches who started the tradition – First United Methodist Church of Orlando.
Located on the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Jackson Street, the church has been a part of Orlando's community for decades. But one year ago right after the Pulse massacre, Pastor Emily Edwards says she felt people had to know the congregation was a safe space where the community could heal in a loving presence.
When people gathered for a vigil on June 13, 2016 on the lawn of the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts, feet away from the church's doorsteps, Edwards and other church leaders sprang into action, bringing out water and snacks for mourners. As they were handing out supplies, one of the vigil's organizers came up and asked if First United could ring the bells as the names of the 49 victims were read. Lani Swegheimer-Fuehrer, the church's facilities director, ran quickly to get the chimes coordinated.
"I'll never forget how long it took for all 49 chimes," Edwards says. "It was around eight minutes of sitting there and there was this silence between each toll of the bell. It was a very powerful and sobering experience for all of those gathered there."
Edwards says the bells were the "sound of hope" for people who had lost so much that day.
"Even in midst of all this death and destruction, there was life and love in the darkness," she says.
Swegheimer-Fuehrer says tolling the bells and handing out water to thousands gathered at the Dr. Phillips vigil that day gave her and other church members a purpose and a way to support in some capacity.
"Everyone was pulling together," Swegheimer-Fuehrer says. "The truth really is that what [the shooter] tried to do that day was not successful. If anything, it made people stronger. I think what he did with that tragedy is he made the LGBTQ community more acceptable to people who may have been struggling with that in the past as to whether to accept those people. We've always been accepting in our church as a whole but there are people that I know that had difficulty coming to terms with people in the LGBTQ community. After that tragedy, it just changed they way they thought about people. They're no different than you and I."