ORLANDO, Fla. — Thousands of Orlandoans of many stripes gathered Monday on the lawn of the Dr. Phillips Center performing arts venue in the muggy Florida evening — some wearing rainbows or the colors of the American flag; some holding homemade signs and roses; some quietly reflecting as soft violin music played from loudspeakers.
Nuren Haider, donning a blue hijab as an observer of Muslim faith, carried a sign with the symbol for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“This event, I want it to send the message of love, acceptance, peace and equality,” said Haider, 31. “It’s important for our different groups to be here, because as an individual you are strong, but as a community you’re stronger.”
She said terrorists don’t represent her, or any faith, because “they’re just bad and horrible people.”
Melaney Maxey, an east Orlando resident, said a stronger Orlando would grow through the pain. She brought a sign that read: “ONE LOVE. ONE PULSE.”
“I’m very proud of the way the community has come together to donate blood, to collect supplies and just lift each other up,” said Maexy, 34.
Mikkiah Cunningham led in prayer her “Gemstones” group, African-American girls between the ages of 6 and 16 from west Orlando.
“I’m basically showing them about loving, learning and living,” Cunningham said. “Instead of running in fear we’re going to stand strong . . . Why should we have our kids hiding in their houses?”
Joe Saunders, a longtime LGBT advocate in Central Florida, told the crowd extending from the venue to City Hall that they were gathered “to breathe together and to mourn those we’ve lost.”
Pulse, he said, was “more than just a dance club” but “a place . . . to commune.”
The crowd cheered loudly when Saunders thanked “the Orlando City police who fought for us . . . even as they guard us now.”
Some of the loudest cheers also followed calls against gun violence, for stricter gun laws and to stop mass killings once and for all.
Speaker after speaker emphasized the pain, the sorrow, but also the determination to move forward as one city, one pulse, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual identity.
The messages came from Muslim, Christian and Jewish speakers alike, from Hispanics, from club staff, from advocates and from politicians.
“Tonight, we remain a city in pain. We’re mourning and we’re angry,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said. “We’re struggling with the darkness that was cast toward our city . . . but we will get through this.”
He added: “We can’t change what happened” but we can show “joy and love can conquer violence and hate.”
Carlos Guillermo Smith, an LGBTQ advocate in the hard-hit Latino community, said “we’re reeling from the tragic news” but will push back on hatred.
This, Guillermo Smith said in English and Spanish, was “a horrific attack intended to send a message of hate against all Latinos and the LGBT people, which in turn is an attack on all humanity.”
The names of the 49 people lost were read, as some in the crowd wept.
“Hearing those names echo off these buildings is hitting me even harder today and I find myself awash in sadness, in anger, but also in pride,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida. “Our lasting tribute,” she told the crowd, “is to challenge bigotry . . . even in ourselves.”
Patty Sheehan, the city’s first openly gay elected commissioner, wept through her words.
“I have seen blood all over the sidewalks and streets of our city . . . I have seen mothers crying,” Sheehan said. “I have also seen the power of love . . . We will get through this, because we are a people who love and love conquers hate every single time!”
As the event came to an end, people lit candles and raised them to the sky, embodying their hope that light could overcome darkness.
Bells tolled 49 times for each live lost.
Giovanni Nieves was among those in the crowd who were overcome with emotion and wept, as others consoled him.
He lost five friends in the shootings.
“It’s a hard thought to understand that they’re never coming back,” said Nieves, 31, a hairdresser in Orlando. “It was the last goodbye.”