A church makes a special connection with an Orlando victim’s family
How a New Jersey congregation came to bless a grieving mother who lost her son in the nation’s worst mass shooting.
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Bobby Ross Jr. | Christian Chronicle
ORLANDO, Fla. — “It’s been a while, man,” said my friend Jose Luis Cintrón, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas.

Thirty years, to be exact.

Inside Story | Bobby Ross Jr.
Sadly, I called after all these years because my friend just lost his nephew, Peter “Ommy” Gonzalez-Cruz, in the mass shooting that claimed 49 lives at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Back in 1986 — my senior year at Keller High School, north of Fort Worth — Cintrón and I were part of a tight-knit group of friends that included his twin brother, Tony, and my brother, Scott.

We roamed the same school hallways. We worked together at a McDonald’s restaurant. On our off nights, we hung out — seeing movies like “Top Gun” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” playing co-ed softball and cruising in our super-cool cars, such as the gray 1980 Ford Pinto with manual transmission that Scott and I shared.

“Those were fun days,” Cintrón said as we reminisced before talking about his family’s unfathomable loss.

• • •
Through the magic of Facebook, my friend and I reconnected online a few years ago.
Both of us still share a passion for the Texas Rangers. We used to listen to the late-night play-by-play as we mopped floors, cleaned grills and tried, unsuccessfully, to wash the onion and pickle smells off our fingers.

Now, we often trade comments on our favorite team’s ups and downs. We don’t, however, engage in a lot of serious talk.



ORLANDO MASSACRE: A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE

PART 1: Loving gays and lesbians
PART 2: Jihad and ordinary Muslims

PART 3: A special connection to a victim's family
That changed after a gunman named Omar Mateen, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, opened fire on the Pulse nightclub on June 12.

“My nephew was at that club last night, Bobby,” Cintrón shared on my Facebook page the Sunday of the shooting. “My sister has not heard from him yet. She went to one of the three hospitals where the injured were taken, but they told her he was not at that one. Praying while waiting for an update.”

After a tragedy such as the Orlando massacre, so many of us want to preach.

We want to defend gun ownership or rail against it. We want to debate whether Islam is an inherently violent religion or not. We want to argue over what the Bible says — or doesn’t say — about homosexuality.

Too often, we forget to focus on the victims and their loved ones.

In this case, my friend helped me do that.

• • •
For 12 hours, Bernadette Cruz — my friend’s sister — feared the worst but held out hope that her son somehow might be alive.
But Cruz finally learned from authorities that her 22-year-old son had died from a single bullet to the head. He still had vital signs when taken from the club to a hospital, but he was brain dead, my friend said.

“That was the most painful process,” Cintrón said of the excruciating wait for any information at all on his nephew’s whereabouts or condition.

Cintrón burst into tears at the news.

Jose Luis Cintrón“I understand that we all have to go someday, but he didn’t deserve that. None of them deserved that,” my friend said. “That’s what hurts the most, the way he was taken from us.”

Gonzalez-Cruz hadn’t planned to go to the club that night. He and a female friend had spent the day at the beach. He was home relaxing when his best friend, Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25, stopped by and urged him to go to Pulse because it was a Latin theme night, Cintrón said. Gonzalez-Cruz’s friend lost his life, too, in the terrorist attack.

Asked what his nephew was like, Cintrón replied: “He was the life of the party, man. He would make everybody laugh. He was also into fashion, you know. He would not let his mom go out in the street looking bad. If she didn’t have her hair brushed or looking good, he would not let her go out of the house.”

Gonzalez-Cruz worked at a UPS store, where he was popular with customers. He helped his mother with rent and other bills and was saving money to help send his 11-year-old brother, Gabriel Omar, to college someday. After Gonzalez-Cruz’s death, UPS pledged to fulfill his dream and pay for his brother’s future education.

Weeks later, Cintrón struggles with the senselessness of his loved one’s death.

“He was just starting to live his life,” my friend said of his nephew. “He had a good life ahead of him.”

Peter “Ommy” Gonzalez-Cruz, with his grandparents Pedro and Marianela Cruz, in Las Vegas about two weeks before the Orlando attack. They went to see Jennifer Lopez in concert. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY JOSE LUIS CINTRON)

• • •
Dan Cooper preaches for the Pitman Church of Christ in Sewell, N.J., south of Philadelphia.
In my reporting trips to the Northeast, I’ve been blessed to stay with Cooper and his wonderful wife, Katherine.

After the Orlando attack — roughly 1,000 miles from the Pitman church building — Cooper sought a way to help.

“Absolutely no political motivation … only the compassion of Jesus,” he wrote on Facebook. “Looking to send a check to support families following the massacre and time of horrendous loss in Orlando. … Any suggestions?”

I mentioned that my high school friend had lost his nephew.

Dan and Katherine CooperWithin days, the Pitman church sent a $500 check in care of Cintrón to benefit Gonzalez-Cruz’s mother.

The gift came with no strings attached. It benefited a family with no connections, as far as I know, to Churches of Christ.

Pitman church members gave the money purely as an act of love.

“We were both shocked and horrified to learn of the senseless murders and serious injuries in Orlando,” Cooper wrote in the church bulletin, explaining the donation. “Many of us have wondered how we might best respond with the love and compassion of Jesus to this shameful and sinful act of violence. But that is where Christians step in to shed light and love. While we still do not understand the motives of the shooter, and maybe never will, we do understand that dozens of families and hundreds of people have had their world turned upside down.”

My friend described the New Jersey’s congregation gesture as “awesome.”

The same day the check arrived, Cintrón wrote a thank-you note, which Cooper shared with me.

“My sister has been very strong since the loss of her son Peter Ommy,” Cintrón said in the note, “but she is going through the stages, and some days are better than others. Prayers are welcome because I am a firm believer that God heals through prayers. May God continue blessing you, your church and its members, always!”

Amen, my friend.

It's about time we got the old gang together again. Perhaps next time the Rangers are in town?

Bobby Ross Jr. is Chief Correspondent for The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at bobby.ross@christianchronicle.org.
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