The Connecticut Conference is sending two teams of first responders to Orlando, Florida, to offer care, support and public witness following the mass shooting that left 50 people dead and 53 wounded, most of them part of the gay Latino/a community. The C.A.R.E. (Church Awareness Response Effort) Team is made up of members of three New England Conferences, CTUCC, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
The first team of responders, The Rev. Emily Heath of Exeter, NH, and Chris Breen, a seminarian from Cambridge, MA, arrived in Orlando this morning (June 14) in time to join a gathering with national UCC staff, Florida Conference staff and Florida pastors.
A second team of first responders composed of Connecticut clergy will go to Orlando tomorrow (June 15). They are: The Rev. Thea Racelis, pastor of the South Congregational Church of Middletown, The Rev. Jack Davidson, Associate Minister of the First Church of Christ Congregational in Redding, and The Rev. Mia Douglas, Director of Discipleship at Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford.
They will report on their activities through a Facebook Group “CTUCC Orlando Response” and using the Twitter hashtag #CTUCCinOrlando.
Their four-day trips are part of the Connecticut Conference’s C.A.R.E. Ministry. Associate Conference Minister Da Vita McCallister explains that C.A.R.E. is part of the Racial Justice Ministry, in recognition of the fact that part of working for racial justice sometime means responding to moments of “human-caused- disasters” such as these. The Connecticut and Massachusetts Conferences are Strategic Partners in the Racial Justice Ministry and are sharing the expenses for the C.A.R.E. Team.
“A core part of racial justice ministry is advocacy,” she said. “A part of our ministry has to be offering support.”
She said the response is also informed by the Conference staff’s experience following the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 26 children and their teachers dead.
“We’ve had Newtown here. We know what happens when the gaze of the nation turns on you, and the view that you have of yourself is changed by that,” she said.
The first response team is already working with a local LGBT Crisis Center, McCallister said, as well as with the Florida Conference staff. Their task is to offer care and support to those in need and assess the immediate and short term needs.
Heath, who is senior pastor of the Congregational Church in Exeter, NH, has served as an emergency room chaplain.
“I grew up gay in Orlando,” she said. “This is my hometown and my community. I feel like I am being called to respond as a faith leader.”
Breen, who is a member of Old South Church in Boston, Mass., said the church needs to play “a large part in the healing and reconciliation of our relationships with one-another and with God in times like these.” Breen has experience in trauma response, pastoral care and spiritual integration across varied demographics, most recently completing education at Fenway Health, the premier provider of LGBTQ centered healthcare in new England.
The Rev. Racelis is Puerto Rican, bilingual and identifies as queer.
“I feel called to be present to minister to my community and my people,” she said. “We need voices on the ground who can proclaim with word and witness the truth of our faith – that God made us, just as we are, and called us good; that God loves us; that God did not cause this massacre; that God weeps with us at this loss of life in the gay Latinx community.”
Davidson, who traveled to Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown, served in a community next door to Newtown following the tragedy there.
“I have lived through the struggle of trying to minister in a community faced with unexpected communal tragedy,” he said.
And Douglas said she feels a call to go to Orlando and bear witness.
“In every generation, the church is called to speak truth to power,” she said. “Given the current tension, culture of fear and oppression present in our society, it is right and necessary that the church be a prophetic presence and witness in Orlando, providing a ministry of presence, care advocacy, and the extravagant love of Jesus Christ to a community in need of healing.”
McCallister said the Conference teams give a way for churches across the Conference to respond to the shootings. They will bring back information on how churches can respond to support the people in Orlando, and they will bring back testimony as to what they saw, heard and felt.
“We are putting skin in the game,” she said. “This where we can see the power of Our Church’s Wider Mission. I couldn’t go to Orlando, but I’m there through them.”
Tiffany Vail is the Associate Conference Minister for Communications