Amid the rising tide of gun violence in Orange County (OC), Florida, United States, nearly 60 public citizens, neighborhood activists, police officers, pastors, and civic leaders gathered at Patmos Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Apopka on April 19 to seek ways to stem the bloodshed.
The forum was convened by OC Citizens Safety Task Force, a working group that is gathering public input, reviewing policy proposals, and recommending action steps to stem the growing threat of gun violence. Areas being researched include prevention, interventions, prosecution, and enforcement.
A Crisis Response
OC Mayor Jerry Demings appointed the task force in March after a shooter killed three people, including a news reporter who was killed while reporting at the scene of an earlier shooting. The 30-member panel is composed of public officials, educators, community activists, clergy, and law enforcement officers. Patmos’s senior pastor James R. Doggette co-chairs the task force along with James Coffin, a retired Adventist pastor who served 11 years as executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.
As Doggette invited comments, attendees offered ideas. Cyndy Vargo, from Orlando, recommended that police departments stage a quarterly guns-for-shoes event where a pair of shoes (or sneakers) is exchanged for each surrendered firearm. She also suggested that vocational tech programs, offered by local colleges, should be marketed to high school students. “It’s the best kept secret in Orange County,” she said. “You do not have to have a high school diploma. This is a way to give people hope.”
Ruben Saldana, a community activist in Orlando and former gang member, believes that those closest to the problem can provide the solutions. He explained that a united community would have a more effective impact on neighborhoods than government handouts. He also observed that one of most troubled areas of the county had no community center.
A pastor from South Apopka, whose son was murdered, mentioned dormant facilities in South Apopka that could be used to provide activities for youth. He suggested that a midnight basketball program, along with other activities, could reduce crime if facilities were available. “You can’t put money into a community and then take it away. The funding should be ongoing,” he said.
Miles Mulrain, a task force member and a community activist who helps victims of crimes in Orlando, urged the audience to lobby city and county officials to provide resources and to get educated on government funding cycles. “There’s funding available for many resources that most people don’t know about. Don’t wait for meetings like this to contact officials and air your concerns and your ideas.”
Doggette thanked the audience for their ideas and their willingness to actively work with civic leaders to reduce violent crimes. He explained that the committee will review the county’s current projects and new proposals and make recommendations to the OC Board of County Commissioners. The information will inform the Board’s funding allocations.
Demings stressed the importance of community involvement. “We cannot reduce violent crime in our community without the community,” he said. “If you are looking for the government to solve the problem alone, that will not happen.”
He expressed his gratitude to Doggette for making the church available for the meeting. He reiterated the importance of churches partnering with local governments to provide programming for young people. “There’s no way that we can do this without the help of faith-based communities,” he said.
A Unique Venue
The forum was held in Patmos’s newly-constructed sanctuary, just one month after the room was opened on March 18. The Hub multi-purpose worship space is part of Patmos’s 107,000-square-foot sports complex, The Well.
The Well contains basketball courts, a kid’s gymnasium, volleyball courts, batting cages, martial arts facilities, space for COVID testing, a restaurant, and an outdoor video screen used to stream services to the parking lot. The Hub is also available for wedding receptions, banquets, conferences, training sessions, and other events. During its grand opening ceremonies, G. Alexander Bryant, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America, described The Well as a “center of influence,” a place that attracts the community.
Patmos’s executive pastor Marvin McClean says that providing a resource for the community is an essential part of the church’s mission. “The Well is a building that has eternal consequences. We provide opportunities where our community can intersect with our church,” McClean said. “It’s a place where our kids can grow and learn, and where they can expand in ministry. Just as Jesus met the woman at the well in John 4, so The Well is where our church and our community meet.”