First Baptist Church of Orlando has come to serve Central Florida the way the Washington National Cathedral serves the nation: It's a place where folks of all faiths can gather to grieve over a public tragedy.
Today, First Baptist will be the site of a memorial service for 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, whose death has triggered a national outpouring of sympathy.
Through the years, the 14,000-member church has served as a place for memorial tributes for law-enforcement officers killed in the line of duty as well as the spot where friends and fans came to bid farewell to golfer Payne Stewart after he died in a plane accident in 1999.
With its 5,000-seat sanctuary and central location, it is a natural focal point for the community. The church has come to see these gatherings as part of its mission.
"For at least a decade, we have been open to letting a community that has been through a tragedy come here to grieve together," said Scott Link, pastor of media and communications at the megachurch on South John Young Parkway.
That is one of the most important functions of a church, said Phillip Lucas, professor of religion at Stetson University.
Lucas noted that, just as in 2001, when the nation turned its eyes to Washington National Cathedral as leaders mourned the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, local communities tend to focus on prominent churches as a place to grieve local tragedies.
"A child has died, and there has been a rip in the social fabric," Lucas said. "Anyone can identify with that, and this helps them release their own sorrows."
Lucas said the sharing of grief, even among strangers who did not know the family, reminds us "that we are part of a larger community, a larger family."
David Uth, senior pastor at First Baptist, said he hopes the services will start a healing process in a community angered and saddened by the death.
"As a church, we want to provide hope, healing and the opportunity to experience God's love," Uth said in a written statement. "We believe that hosting the service will give us the opportunity to minister to a family in need and to a community that is hurting because of the loss of this precious child."
Linda Chapin, former Orange County mayor, said the public memorials at First Baptist have helped soothe the community in the past.
"During my time, the community grief was for public servants who had fallen in the line of duty," said Chapin, who directs the Metropolitan Center for Regional Studies at the University of Central Florida. "But I suppose that this also is a chance for the public to say they are sad for what has happened to this beautiful child and to say they care."
Still, no single service is likely to heal all the wounds that opened during the months investigators searched for Caylee's killer before charging her 22-year-old mother, Casey Anthony, with the crime, said Orange County sheriff's Capt. Miguel Pagan, head of chaplain services.
"It's another chapter that they're trying to close," said Pagan, who also is an ordained Catholic deacon. "But there's still another chapter because there will be a trial."
Jay Hamburg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5673.