The Rev. Dr. Damaris Whittaker was getting ready for Sunday services at First Church of Christ in downtown Hartford on June 12 when she first learned that a deadly shooting had taken place earlier that morning at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
As the new reports began to provide more details about this horrific tragedy and that most of the 50 people who died were gay Latinos, Whittaker recalled that she was engulfed by a sense of sadness as well as a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness.
However, the Hartford minister also began to think of how she and other church leaders could best help their “brothers and sisters” in the LGBTI (editor’s note:LGBTI is a derivative of LGBT that is often used to include “intersex” people) Latino community.
Within 24 hours, a vigil took place in downtown Hartford at First Church of Christ where Whittaker is senior minister. A diverse group of people came together at this quickly organized gathering to pray and share their thoughts about the Orlando tragedy. They included Connecticut Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and members of the local Islamic population.
However, Whittaker and a longtime friend, the Rev. Persida Mendez-Rivera of Manchester, felt they had to do more.
In a few days, planning was under way for a second gathering, the Prayer Vigil and Speak Out Rally for LGBTI Latino, which will take place 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 23 at First Church of Christ’s meeting house on Main Street, Hartford. This will be a time not only for reflection and prayer, but also to instigate a conversation about how best the community and its churches can support the LGBT Latino population, Whittaker said.
Mendez -Rivera, who is the leader of Ministerio Nueva Creacio in Manchester, said, “We are hoping that this will be a place where the Latino gay community can come together.”
Whittaker alluded to U.S. Senator Christopher Murphy’s comment that thoughts and prayers are great but have to be followed up with action. “It is time to take action to bring justice for all here,” said the Hartford minister.
Other members of the clergy are planning to participate Thursday. These include the Rev. Enrique Irizzary who is the priest in charge of the Church of the Good Shepherd, a Hartford parish that provides a Spanish-language ministry and serves people from central and South America, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the continental United States.
Whittaker also said that one or two of ministers who have been to Orlando recently will share what they encountered.
Mendez-Rivera , who was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico recalled that she “felt a sadness” when she learned that 23 of the 50 people who died in Orlando were from Puerto Rico, 90 percent were Latino. “It hit me hard and I needed a place to be with my people,” the Hispanic minister said. Her small and relatively new congregation lit candles and said prayers for the victims at its service that Sunday.
Nationally, 4.3 percent of Latino adults or 1.4 million people consider themselves LGBT, according to a 2013 study by the UCLA Williams Institute. This compares to 3.5 percent of the U.S. population as determined by a Gallup study.
In addition, Latino gays tend to live in Latino communities and not LGBT communities, and that many are in Texas and Florida were they enjoy fewer legal protections.
The Pew Hispanic Center reported that 59 percent of Hispanics, 68 percent of those who are second generation, say that homosexuality should by accepted by society.
Another study conducted by the Social Science Research Solutions found that a majority of Hispanic Catholics support legal gay marriage as compared to less than half of Protestants. Moreover, 59 percent of Protestant Hispanics consider homosexuality as a sin compared to 39 percent of Catholics.
Among the conclusions that were derived from the SSRS study is that how people viewed the LGBT community is often driven by clergy and their messages.
Both Whittaker and Mendez-Rivera expressed concern that many members of the clergy were fueling “the fire” of anti-gay sentiment.
“Pastors need to change their rhetoric and stop preaching against homosexuality,” Whittaker said. “We are all God’s children,” she added.
Mendez-Rivera said that Thursday’s gathering is a place where Latinos can come together and show that churches walk together with the LGBT community. “It is time for the clergy to stand up and to show that as pastors we are progressive thinkers” she said.
In addition, Mendez-Rivera observed that the Latino community in general needs to know that the clergy “stand at their side.”
Those attending Thursday’s rally should enter the Church of Christ through its 675 Main Street entrance. Free parking will be available at the Gold Building garage, entering off Pearl Street, between 5 and 10 p.m. People who use the garage should bring their ticket to the meeting house for validation.