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Community mourns those lost in Orlando shooting

Community mourns those lost in Orlando shooting

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BLACKSBURG — For the Virginia Tech campus, it was a difficult, painful label to carry: the site of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

But it was also a label the community never wanted to have to pass on to another.

“We never wanted anybody else to go through the same thing that we did,” said graduate student Daniel Newcomb.

Newcomb, 25, was in disbelief Sunday when he heard the reports that at least 50 people had been killed and more wounded when a gunman opened fire at a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

The attack, which is under investigation as a possible act of terrorism, became the nation’s deadliest shooting — replacing the April 16, 2007, shooting at Virginia Tech that claimed 33 lives, including the shooter.

“It was really hard to process,” Newcomb, who is gay, said of the news. “… Whenever an attack like this happens, it’s like every American life is affected.”

“For me, being a member of the LGBT community, I felt it particularly strongly because I think we have a very strong, tight-knit community. When something like this happens at a location where LGBT individuals gather together to be themselves, to express themselves and be open, when an attack happens at a place like that, for me, it’s even more powerful.”

Newcomb quickly set about organizing a candlelight vigil that ended up bringing together about 60 people from the LGBT and Blacksburg communities Sunday night.

Daniel Kwasny, a gay man who was a Tech student during the 2007 shootings, said this vigil was particularly difficult as it not only brought up memories of that time but also served as a stark reminder of prejudice he and other LGBT people have faced.

“It’s more important than ever to show our pride,” he said.

In Roanoke, the Metropolitan Church of the Blue Ridge also opened its doors Sunday evening for those who wished to pray and mourn together.

The gathering was an opportunity for the community to draw strength from one another and stand together in the face of incomprehensible grief, chaos and heartbreak, said church leaders.

“I think we all need a chance to come together and process the grief,” Cathy Fisher, a board member, said as she stood in the hushed church sanctuary lined with tall, stained glass windows.

“To just let our everyday lives stop for a minute and think about the impact this has on so many people and, hopefully, to compel us to move forward in a way that’s constructive and positive and that brings people together, rather than separating them.”

During the church vigil, some 20 people came together, lighting candles and taking seats with heads bowed.

Cindy Burch began to cry as she thought about her own son, who is gay. “I just pray for all those other mothers today, knowing their hearts are breaking,” she said. “… Your children, they’re your babies, no matter how old they are. They’re still your babies.”

The group gathered around together in the pews and spoke of the need to align against both hate and efforts to vilify one another, in favor of dedicating themselves to kindness and community.

“We ask that you show us how to be love and light in a world that needs it so desperately,” Metropolitan Church’s interim pastor, the Rev. Kathy Carpenter, said as she led people in prayer.

“We pray for an end to this violence. We say together, enough. It is enough.”

In Blacksburg, stunned messages of mourning and empathy poured out Sunday as the news unfolded.

Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam wrote an email to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer — with whom he became acquainted with through the U.S. Conference of Mayors — expressing the town’s condolences.

“At times like this, there really are no words to express your sadness,” Rordam said. “Your heart goes out to all the people affected and to the people of Orlando.”

The Virginia Tech Police Department posted a heavy-hearted message on social media sending its prayers to Orlando.

“Our department has seen firsthand man’s inhumanity towards man,” it said of the violence. “When will it all end?”

During the vigil at Tech, which was held at the campus’s April 16 Memorial, people who were gay or transgender spoke about the difficulty of accepting themselves and how Sunday’s violence had affected them.

Franklyn Harrison, a 33-year-old Blacksburg man, told the crowd that for the first time he momentarily regretted getting the tattoo on his arm: a rainbow-colored feather representing his gay identity and the journey for him to accept himself.

“Now more than ever it’s important for us to love ourselves and have love in our hearts,” he said.

Staff writer Robby Korth contributed to this article.

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