When I signed up to go on the Disney Summer Mission in February, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into. I knew I would be going back to my home in Florida at Disney World, I knew I would be investing in some incredible students, and I knew that eventually I would be returning to my work home at the Emporium with some of my favorite people.
Okay, to be honest, I thought it would be a pretty easy summer mission. Something I’d done before. People I knew and loved, and very few cultural barriers to overcome. Familiarity and love. Just like last summer. Unfortunately, that’s not how life works.
Two and a half short weeks after I arrived in Orlando the deadliest mass shooting in America happened mere miles from my home. It shook me up, being so close to such a tragedy, but little did I know what was coming. Throughout the day I realized the number of coworkers I knew who frequented Pulse were far greater than I had realized. It still seemed unlikely that I knew anyone who was killed, but the attack felt closer and closer to home. Then the shock came.
Sunday night, as I was sitting in my condo scrolling through social media, I found out one of my coworkers was missing. It wasn’t a co-worker I knew well or had spent much time with, but at the Emporium, everyone is family. I remember praying fervently that he would be found, that he was merely missing and not killed, but the next morning I got the news that he was confirmed dead at the shooting.
You never really think that you’ll ever be close to a tragedy until it happens. You see posts for it all over social media; Pray for Paris, Pray for Turkey, Pray for Whatever City Most Recently Had a Hardship! But it’s not until you lose someone you know in a tragedy that you realize the weight of what has happened. This tragedy didn’t feel foreign or distant. It felt personal. It hurt.
A week after the tragedy occurred, a vigil was held at Disney World for everyone who was lost in the Pulse shooting. The Emporium Cast Members were allowed to leave the store to participate in the vigil as the only workplace in Magic Kingdom who lost a coworker. Even though I wasn’t working yet and I felt a little disconnected from the Emporium, I went up to the vigil to be there for my friends and everyone who was struggling. We gathered around the partners statue, crowded and close because of the incredible number of people who showed up for the event. The Kiss Goodnight sounded at 11:30, and after it finished there was a sound almost never heard at Disney Parks – silence. A few hundred people held up glow sticks and candles in remembrance of those who lost their lives.
It was a beautiful and tragic sight.
I stayed for a long time after the initial moment of silence, comforting various friends, and praying for Jerry and all his friends and family. When I finally did leave, I felt the weight of all that had happened the past week crushing me. No one should have to lose a loved one in an act of hate. I barely knew Jerry and was hurt by his loss, I cannot imagine how much worse the pain would have been had I known him better. His friends spoke highly of him, and he along with everyone else who was lost in the Pulse Shooting will not soon be forgotten.
Fortunately the rest of the summer went a lot smoother than the first couple weeks. There were no tragic deaths, no more vigils, but that event did change the way I interacted with my coworkers. It made me want to love them better, to let everyone know that they were loved by Christ, and that God in no way used the shooting as a punishment for anyone.
Life is short. Love the people around you, and treat everyone with respect. Know that God loves you, and God loves the people around you. You never know when their last day might be.