On Sunday, June 12th, many of us here in the Orlando, Florida community awoke to the local news that twenty persons had been shot in a popular Orlando nightclub during a Latin night event. By the time the majority of us were finishing up early morning service or preparing for mid-morning service, the number had increased to fifty, and the national media had descended on the Orlando. Chaplains across the area began to coordinate a mass casualty response that included deployment to the family staging area, which had been set up in the Hampton Inn adjacent to Orlando Regional Medical Center (Level I trauma facility).
Words cannot begin to describe the experience we were about to embark upon. Upon arrival, the atmosphere was wrought with tension and saturated with every emotion imaginable. Hope and optimism occupied the same sacred space as anxiety and fear. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, young and old, gay and straight, were all on that desolate and lonely road called grief. Hitherto fore, nothing in our collective fifty years of chaplaincy experience had prepared us for grief on such a massive scale.
The Chaplains were charged to provide pastoral and crisis intervention during this mass casualty incident. Chaplain Torres, who serves as an Orlando Police Department Chaplain, functioned in the role of the Incident Chaplain. We took inventory of the strengths and weaknesses of the chaplains that had assembled, as we are all at least familiar with each other. There was a need to call up Imams, Rabbis, and Catholic Priests to function as our Resource Chaplains. Chaplains with specialized training such as Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), Pastoral Crisis Intervention (PCI), and thanatology were dispatched to the epicenter and to a few homes to make notifications. After the team was assembled, we set about the task of triaging the many families that had assembled. Ascertaining religious preference and medical conditions that may be exacerbated by stress became important pieces of information. While community clergy from all over, all with the best intentions, came to offer support in whatever way they could, it proved to be challenging. Some of the clergy set about laying hands on the families in the name of Jesus. To manage them and to attempt to instruct them as to how they might create sacred space where there may be room for their brand of pastoral care proved to be challenging. Chaplains were reminded of what binds us together; our shared heritage and a burden to extend genuine grace and mercy to those in pain and to each other.
But, in the midst of such emotional chaos, we began our ministry of care and counseling; walking among the emotionally and spiritually wounded. For Chaplains Torres and McPhee, walking among the dead became a necessity as they reached out to be of comfort to law enforcement at the epicenter. As the news broke to the anxious families (whose loved ones were not among those read from the hospitalized list) that their loved ones could be presumed dead, pandemonium set in. The chorus of collective wailing became deafening. The stench of raw emotions became unpalatable. The physical environment became threatening.
After an incredibly exhausting day of ministering to the bereaved, the hysterical, the frantic, the anxious, the horrified, the terrified, the hopeful, and the hopeless, the psychological injury to the chaplains is undeniable. However severe that injury, it pales in comparison to the indelible scars this act of terror and hate has left upon the souls of the fifty families of the deceased as well as the survivors themselves.
As we concluded our time at the family staging area, and people began boarding buses to be transported to the next location, it was suggested that we conclude our time in prayer. Chaplains from every agency involved, counselors, community clergy, other professionals, and family and friends, gathered to form a circle uniting their hearts and their voices as one in love. Chaplain McPhee opened the time together, and Chaplain Torres concluded by offering a prayer in Spanish.
We would like to take this time to acknowledge our CPSP colleagues who ministered side-by-side with us in the trenches: Jim DeGrado (at the family staging area); John Williams, Sr., Steve Binkley, Phyllis Fitzwater, and Rich Behers (at the trauma center). May God continue to bless the work of our hands.
Scott A. Fleming