ORLANDO, Florida — Before addressing a crowd of more than 15,500 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints here, President Russell M. Nelson quietly acknowledged a dark day in this city known for theme parks and happy memories.
During a VIP reception at the Amway Center on Sunday evening, President Nelson spent a few minutes with the owner of the local business where 49 people lost their lives in a mass shooting three years ago this week.
Barbara Poma, the CEO and founder of onePULSE Foundation, said words from the highest ranking Latter-day Saint official meant a lot.
“I was moved that he knew what we were doing, moved that he was so kind to me,” she said.
Poma said the community is still healing from the June 12, 2016, shooting at Pulse nightclub, a gay club in Orlando not far from the arena where President Nelson would later speak. A memorial at the site includes tributes to those who died and to the 68 who were injured. Photographs, banners and messages communicate one resolve: “We will not let hate win.”
“Hate came to our city. He wasn’t from our city, but he came here and he brought his hate,” said Poma of the lone gunman who was killed by police in a standoff. “But none of that mattered. Because what came from our community, from our country and the world afterward overshined that. Love grew. It was overpouring. It still is overpouring.”
Poma said that in addition to President Nelson, she has felt the love and concern from local members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who “want to have conversations” that will better the community.
Elder Victor P. Patrick, an Area Seventy, said it is wonderful that Poma was willing to come to the reception.
“Orlando has really pulled together in response to the Pulse nightclub tragedy,” he said. “As part of the Orlando Community, it is very meaningful to me that at the very highest level we can express our deep sorrow for what occurred and our condolences to the families.”
Robin R. Smith, Orlando Florida Stake president, and other local Latter-day Saints are planning to attend the onePULSE Foundation remembrance ceremony on Wednesday.
President Nelson traveled to Florida with his wife, Sister Wendy W. Nelson; Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Harriet R. Uchtdorf; and Elder Shayne M. Bowen, a General Authority Seventy, and his wife, Sister Lynette M. Bowen. In addition to Poma, he greeted other local government, interfaith and business leaders.
Mayor Jerry Demings of Orange County praised the relationship between local government and the church. The church owns 295,000 acres in the area that are part of Deseret Ranches of Florida.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer called it an honor to have the highest-ranking official in any religion visit the city, especially when thousands gather to hear him speak.
The church “has a large presence in central Florida,” he said.
Thousands of Latter-day Saints braved a sudden and violent rain storm to participate in the meeting, many arriving soaked to the skin.
Prior to the devotional, President Nelson met with a dozen youth and thanked them for their faith. “You are doing the right thing — just do it faster and better,” he said.
Acknowledging that Orlando is often referred to as the “happiest place on earth,” President Nelson told the congregation during his devotional remarks that lasting happiness, even joy, comes to those who keep the commandments of God.
Certainly, he said, Orlando can claim to be the site of many happy memories for countless individuals. But where is the happiest place on earth?
“It is wherever the spirit of the Lord dwells in the hearts of the people. It is inside any home that has become a sanctuary of faith and is filled with love. It is inside every house of the Lord,” said President Nelson. “It can be wherever you are when the spirit of the Lord is with you.”
These are truths, he said, “that open the heavens and allow us to draw upon the power of God. These are truths that will lead to blessings and happiness here and to never-ending happiness in the world to come.”
Sister Nelson spoke of seeking and receiving revelation when she and President Nelson were dating and buying their first house. She also spoke about answered prayers as she and her sisters prayed for their aging and sick mother.
The Lord knows what will be best for his children, she said. “It is my testimony that the heavens will open when we pray.… And the heavens will continue to open as we follow through with every impression that comes to us.”
Elder Uchtdorf highlighted three invitations “you can offer to others, so they can find out what the church is all about. Each is a kind and loving call to action.
“The first is, ‘Come and see.’ The second is, ‘Come and help.’ And the third is, ‘Come and stay.’”
Heavenly Father recognizes and blesses efforts and sacrifices, he said. “He knows you. He loves you. He will be with you.”
Sister Uchdorf said the restored gospel of Jesus Christ has a message of wonder and hope. Sharing the memory of her father’s death and her family’s conversion to the gospel when she was a child, she said, “It is a message of love that will uphold us through trial, sadness, and despair.
“It is the message of God’s love to you and me, his children, that will uphold us throughout the valleys and mountains of our lives and that will exalt us in the world to come.”