Orlando vigil and church services urge unity after a week of death and fear

At least 50,000 people packed into an Orlando park for a candlelight vigil Sunday night, one week since a gunman shot and killed 49 people at a gay nightclub.

The event, both mournful and at times carnivalesque, drew a diverse crowd -- gay couples, Latinos, Muslims.

People chanted: "Peace, love, Pulse" and "Love is love is love."

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer asked the crowd to "stand up and speak out against hatred, violence and division.”

"Last Sunday was the worst day in the history of our community," Dyer said. "But we will not and have not been defined by a hate-filled act of a deranged killer.”

Teresa Jacobs, mayor of Orange County, Fla.,  made a tearful plea to straight people in the crowd: "Open your hearts to acceptance," she said.

She asked parents and pastors to help stop gay young people from living secret or "hollow" lives "in an effort to be accepted."

"Enough is enough is enough," she said.

When gay Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan walked to the microphone, the crowd erupted in cheers. Since the shooting, she said, she's heard from faith leaders who have "apologized and repented for their past behavior."

She added: "I want to be clear. Hating a Muslim person is the same thing as hating a gay person."

For Marisol Del Rio, a Latina lesbian who attended the vigil, the passing of a week hasn't made the attack any less raw. She said she's angry that the gunman, Omar Mateen, is dead, because that means he can't give her answers she wants.

"Why specifically that club?" she asked, shaking her head. "Why wait until Latin Night? Why? Why my people?"

Nearby, an Orlando doctor, Sajid Chaudhary, who is Muslim, stood smiling at passers-by and holding a sign denouncing "all acts of terrorism."

He called Mateen, who is said to have voiced support for an Islamic terrorist group during the attack, “a crazy person" and "a wild animal."

"We are Muslim and we are not part of this person," Chaudhary said, tears filling his eyes.

Julia Meffen, 48, said she attended the event with a friend to honor the victims and show solidarity with her community. She runs a pet boutique called Woof Gang Bakery and said one of the victims, Eddie Justice, 30, was a customer. He often came in, she said, with his small dog.

Meffen, a lesbian, said she hoped the shooting opened people's eyes to the discrimination and violence faced by members of the LGBT community. "We get this every day," she said, "just not on this scale."

On Sunday morning, as families gathered for memorial services across the region, Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department would make public some conversations between hostage negotiators and the perpetrator of the deadly nightclub massacre.

The partial transcripts of three separate phone conversations set to be released will reveal Mateen discussing his motivations for the rampage and pledging allegiance to terrorist groups, Lynch said during appearances on Sunday news programs.

“We are trying to recreate the days, the weeks, the months of this killer’s life before the attack,” Lynch said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And we’re also asking people who had contact with him to come forward.”

Lynch said she would travel to Orlando this week to receive additional updates about what she called a “very aggressive investigation” into Mateen, as well as others who may be subject to criminal charges in connection with the killings. But she said it was too early to talk about who might be subject to investigation, including Mateen’s wife.

The transcripts will reveal Mateen’s stated allegiance to terrorist groups, but Lynch said no information indicated he was directed to commit the act by anyone overseas.

“But we do have information that shows that, over the course of time, he, like sadly too many individuals, was consuming radical jihadist information online and was becoming radicalized here in the United States,” she said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“So we're looking at all of those connections as well to determine, when did it happen and what was the point that led him to actually pick up that gun?”

In one of a number of church services commemorating the tragedy, Pastor Paul Valo of Christ Church of Orlando described the last week as a blur.

Speaking from the pulpit, he described some of the people he’d met — a weeping emergency response team member and a man suffering an anxiety attack amid the commotion — and told his congregation it’s impossible to make sense of insanity. Processing tragedy, he said, isn’t linear.

“Every person in this room is going to have to walk into restoration,” he said. “Away from fear.”

The church, located down the street from the nightclub where the shooting occurred, was transformed shortly afterward into a hub for donations and crisis counseling.

Some in the congregation during Sunday’s service cried softly; others clasped their hands and bowed their heads in prayer. Outside, a strong rain fell. 

Times staff  writers Gerber reported from Orlando and Wilber from Washington.

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UPDATES:

6:45 p.m.: The story was updated with additional details on the vigil.

5:46 p.m.: The story was updated with information about the evening vigil for victims of the nightclub shooting.

The story was originally published at 12:07 p.m.

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