Almost 20 years ago, Anne Atwell started attending services at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale. Today, she’s the Minister of Connections.
“[The church] impacted me so much that I decided to enter seminary,” Atwell said, which she did about 10 years ago. “I was working full-time at a corporation but I knew I wanted to do something more.”
That something more led Atwell to get her Masters of Divinity at St. Thomas University. She’s even working on her doctorate right now.
Atwell started part-time work at Sunshine almost three years ago, and realized not too long after that there was a lot of loss and grief among the congregants, but they had nowhere to go to talk about it. That’s when Atwell started the bereavement group in mid-2015. Since then it’s grown so much that it meets twice a week — once at Sunshine Cathedral and once at SunServe on Wilton Drive.
Since she had training in grieving and loss, she created the bereavement group that specifically targeted the LGBT community. There’s clearly a need for it.
“It grew so quickly and fast, we had to make another group,” she said. “Fifteen people [at one meeting] is a lot, so we broke it up.”
Now, there’s one in the afternoons at SunServe for those who can’t drive at night and one in the evenings at Sunshine Cathedral for those who work during the day. It works within the schedule of those who need it, and for the LGBT community, the demand was high.
“A lot of groups will say ‘grief is grief’ and I understand that but within the LGBT community, we have certain issues and family dynamics that others won’t understand,” Atwell said. “In our community, our friends are our family. Other groups don’t get that.”
That doesn’t just mean the group is just for the LGBT community — anyone is welcome as long as they are comfortable and respectful of the community. Being part of Sunday worship isn’t a requirement, either. Atwell said the group is a gift from the Cathedral to the community.
And the gift has been tremendous. Atwell shared a story of a man who lost his spouse very suddenly. He attended the group for six months and created a short play about how the loss affected him. Atwell and her wife went to see the play when the man told Atwell’s wife that the group saved his life.
“I see them out and about and they are enjoying life,” she said. “It’ll never be the same but it’s a new normal for them.”
Since the start of the group a year and a half ago, Atwell said 439 people have attended. Meetings usually last about an hour in hopes that everyone gets a chance to speak. Atwell has a loose 12-week program that she created but said it’s not a requirement to stick to.
“I know grief is not that linear,” she said. “Something is going to happen to someone and I’m not going to exclude them. The conversation will go where it goes.”
And if growth keeps increasing at the rapid rate it is now, Atwell sees more meetings in the future.
“As more people find out about the bereavement group, maybe we’ll have to create more groups,” she said. “It’s free and there are no qualifiers except respecting folks and their journey.”
If You Go:
Thursday, 1 pm
2312 Wilton Dr.
Wilton Manors, FL 33305
Thursday, 7 pm
1480 SW 9th Ave
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33315