Emily Heath is Senior Pastor at the Congregational Church in Exeter, and she recently returned from a trip to her hometown, Orlando. She was among five New England responders to provide what she calls “spiritual first aid” to people dealing with trauma from the shooting. Pastor Emily joined NHPR’s Peter Biello to discuss her experience.
So what was it like to be there, on the ground with those folks, helping them out?
We were in a variety of settings in the days we were there. Some of the time we spent down at the vigil site, talking to people who had lost friends and family members. Those were people who just needed someone to talk to, someone to pray with, or someone to just give them a hug. Other times we were trying to observe what was going on in the wider area, so that we could bring back the message of what we could do to help to churches here in New England.
Are there any interactions you had while in Orlando that stick in your memory?
One of the most moving experiences I had was at a gathering of the Latino groups in Orlando, talking about what this response was going to be. It was primarily the Latino community that was targeted; I believe it was 96% of the victims were Latino, and most of the survivors. And so there is a need for that community, in particular, to reach out and respond. All of these groups were talking about how to get bilingual counseling and cultural competence around LGBTQ issues. It was a really wonderful thing to see a community coming together like that.
What ways did they say New England churches could be helpful going forward?
I think this is going to be a long-term recovery process for them, and my sense was that they didn’t need people going down there from this point on; what they really need is to find ways to help people who are there get to trauma specialists who are already in Orlando. And, in particular, we have to make sure that we are helping the Latino community be able to do the work they want to do to respond to this trauma.
You were there for a variety of reasons, one of which was that you have experience dealing with trauma. Put this trauma in perspective for us—how does this compare to other things you’ve seen in your career as someone who’s helped people with trauma?
I started my career as an Emergency Room Chaplain in a Level One Trauma Center. In situations like that, you are responding to one or two victims at a time. I’ve responded in the wake of natural disasters, and that’s something entirely different as well. But this was one man killing 49 people, and that’s something this country’s never seen. So when you just think about that level of trauma—49 families, 49 sets of friends—it is unbelievable in its scope, and it’s going to take years for this community to recovery. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
What are people asking you, people who know you just went to Orlando and are coming back, and how are you responding to those questions?
A lot of people are just asking what it was like to be there and what they can do to help. My church has been incredibly supportive. A lot of people who are not in the church have wondered if our presence was really welcome and helpful, because the church doesn’t always have the best relationship with LGBTQ people. In situations like that, I think that it is important to have the presence of churches that are truly affirming. Ones that say, “We love you exactly as you are, you don’t need to change, and we support all your rights.” Having that kind of spiritual response in place is crucial.
Is there anything else you think people should know about with respect to your visit and to this tragedy in general?
I think that we haven’t even begun to understand the scope of this. It’s not a matter of comparisons, and it’s not a matter of seeing who has the highest death toll. But just as Newtown is still defined by violence, almost 4 years later, Orlando is going to be defined by this for some time. And I think the Latino and the LGBTQ communities will be defined by this for some time as well. And a year from now, when we are done with the interviews, they are still are going to need help.