When it opens its doors each Sunday at 322 15th St. W., Bradenton, for a 10:30 a.m. service, Manatee Unitarian Universalist Fellowship may greet Christians, Buddhists, Jews, humanists, Muslims, scientists, mystics, pagans, atheists and others, said the Rev. Dee Graham.
The fellowship, whose doctrine is love, social justice, equity and compassion, is exceedingly inclusive and welcoming, Graham said.
For years, it has been a safe place for Manatee’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer or questioning community, also known as LGBTQ, which make up a significant percentage of the congregation.
At the fellowship on Sunday, one of the most touching Father’s Day moments was to see Ann Luciani of Colorado hugging her father, Bradenton’s Al Usack, and Usack’s partner, Ed Kobee.
“I’ve known Ed for 29 years,” Luciani said of her dad’s same-sex life mate. “I call them ‘The Dads.’”
But during Sunday’s service where the public was invited to share emotions and ideas about the shooting in Orlando and both Valerie Fisher and James Godwin of Prism Youth Initiative and Manatee Pride gave speeches on the topic, it was also clear that just because the Fellowship is about love doesn’t mean Fellowship members will back off from a fight, members said.
Congregation members expressed outrage Sunday over the Orlando shooting that left 49 dead a week ago Sunday, calling it a hate crime directed at both the LGBTQ and Latino communities.
“It has been called a terrorist attack, but we know this was a hate-fueled rampage that was directed specifically at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons on Latin Night at Pulse,” said Fisher, a licensed counselor who is president of the board of directors of Prism, a local group which provides a opportunity for LGBTQ youths age 13 to 23 in Manatee and Sarasota to come together and get support from noon to 3 p.m. every Saturday.
“I call that a hate crime,” Fisher added.
The perpetrator of the Orlando shooting may have had feelings of being gay, which may have conflicted with his Muslim faith in an explosive way, Graham said.
“If the church says you are evil and all you feel is love, how do you make choices?”Graham said. “How do you live your life?”
Fisher and others who spoke Sunday said that the Orlando shooting has left them and the Manatee LGBTQ community fearful, angry and frustrated that it will happen again, maybe from a “copy-cat.”
“Every day now I am looking over my shoulder because someone might be coming up behind me because I am gay,” said Godwin, 22, who has been a Prism member for four years and, as a volunteer counselor, helps other youth with their fears and concerns.
“I feel I have to be cautious now because we never know when it will be our last moment,” Godwin added. “I hate to see someone die for the idiotic reason that they are gay.”
The only good thing about the Orlando shooting was that it “had our nation see the pain we have to go through every day of our lives,” Godwin said of the LGBTQ community.
Congregation staffer Lisa Bohn, director of religious education, said the congregation will eventually take action, because they are doers, not just talkers.
“I respect the people of this church a lot and I know people want to do the right thing,” Bohn said. “We have a lot of activists here and I feel this will bring us together. It starts a conversation and probably we will see action.”
A part of that expected action might be efforts to have assault weapons banned in Florida, said members, who called the United States “awash” in guns.
“Some people say you need a good person with a gun to kill a bad person with a gun,” said congregation member Gary Chanco. “But when both sides have guns its like the shootout at the OK Corral. Everyone kills everyone else. So, that is not the answer.”
Fellowship members also took exception on Sunday with the media for not reaching out to the same sex partners of the survivors of the Orlando shooting — not just the parents and family of the survivors — and getting their stories.
Many said that not enough was written and spoken about how the attack was also a Latin hate crime.
“Many parents of the Latino victims may not have been aware that their son or daughter was gay,” Graham said. “Those parents were forced to deal with all of this at once.”
In her speech on Sunday, Fisher said that, on the surface, things seem to be getting better for the gay community because of marriage equality, but there is much more to fight for and, Orlando brought some of it out.
“It is perfectly legal that the day after the shooting any of the survivors could have been fired because their employer didn’t know they were gay and now they do,” Fisher said. “So, we have no protections. The LGBTQ community doesn’t have civil rights. I call them human rights and we are denied human rights.”