Less than 36 hours after the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, the Forest Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church in the nearby city of Apopka announced on Facebook that it would host, free of charge, funeral services for those killed.
The post said the church “is extending their availability for FREE funeral services for any LGBT victims of the #thePulse shooting.” The church also offered to stream the services live on the Internet for family and friends who could not attend.
A short time after the Forest Lake announcement appeared, four additional Adventist churches declared that they also would host funeral services for free: the Forest City Spanish church (Altamonte Springs), Altamonte Springs Church (Altamonte Springs), Florida Hospital Church (Orlando), and Orlando Central church (Orlando).
Several families have expressed interest in the free funerals for their loved ones, who were among the 49 people killed in the June 12 shooting, but none had accepted the offer as of June 21.
"We see this as an opportunity for us to serve and show compassion in this time of crisis,” said Geoff Patterson, senior pastor of the Forest Lake church, which is located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Orlando.
The need for a church venue for services became apparent after families expressed funeral concerns to local chaplains.
Two Forest City Spanish pastors, Jorge Figueroa and Pablo Gaitán, and one of the church’s elders, Laura Fernandez, were among the chaplains who helped break the devastating news to some of the victims’ families. They did so in a private room along with officers from the Orlando Police Department hours after the tragedy.
“We comforted them and offered our church's help in any shape or form for the next 24 hours,” Gaitán said. “We contacted consulates, FBI, local county offices, and other organizations to bring assistance to them.”
Gaitán, an associate pastor at the Forest City Spanish church, said the families were thankful and exchanged information with the church representatives.
The original Forest Lake church Facebook post quickly went viral and drew many positive comments. About 24 hours after the church’s announcement on Facebook, the post had been shared nearly 24,000 times with more than 13,000 likes and reactions, and more than 900 comments, largely expressing compassion, love, and gratitude.
“I was very happy to see this post,” wrote Valerie Van Asperen Williams, from California, on Forest Lake church’s Facebook page. “The people in this church are being Jesus to those suffering this horrific loss. Thank you for doing that for them.”
In another comment, George W. Brown, from Florida, wrote: “The Forest Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church deserves our highest commendation for its impressive display of compassion. It's an eloquent example of the unconditional love taught and exemplified by Jesus Christ to suffering human beings. … What the church is graciously offering the victims of this horrific crime is precisely what Christ our perfect example would offer — unconditional love and compassion.”
Forest Lake church leaders said they were glad to see the overwhelmingly positive response from church members, their Facebook friends, and the community at large.
“It’s terrific that other Adventist and non-Adventist churches are responding,” said Bernie Anderson, pastor for collegiate and young adults. “The response in central Florida and beyond has been extraordinary.”
The response has grown, with the Adventist Church’s Florida Conference posting a list on its website of the Adventist churches available for victim funerals.
“I think it's been powerful to see our members share their appreciation that their church is stepping up to meet a need,” Anderson said. “I know there are members who have shared this far and wide with friends and the media. We've also had members who speak Spanish call in and offer to translate or interpret for the services.”
Anderson’s wife, Christina, a certified child life specialist at Nemours Children’s Hospital, played a key role in the offer for free funerals. She learned from hospital chaplains working with families who lost loved ones in the shooting that many were expressing concern over finding church venues for funerals. She shared this information with her husband who, in turn, discussed it with Patterson and Roger Anderson, Forest Lake church’s administrative pastor. The ministry team then moved forward in letting the community know the church was available.
“This is an opportunity to show compassion,” said Walter Castro, Florida Conference lay ministries coordinator, during a ministries teleconference on June 14. “Most of the victims were Latino. After the media is gone a week from now, things will be back to normal. But a lot of people will still be hurting. We want to show our love and compassion, and show to the younger generation that we are here for people.”
He added: “We are not here to do PR for the Adventist Church. We are here to show people that we care. We are a church with compassion for whoever is suffering.”
A. Lee Bennett Jr., associate director of communication for the Florida Conference, contributed to this report.