Josh Bell was named the new executive director of the One Orlando Alliance in October 2020. He said starting the job in the midst of a pandemic brought a few bumps with it.
“It made the getting settled in part take a lot longer,” said Bell, who is the Alliance’s sole full-time staff member.
The Alliance coordinates with its more than 40 member organizations. It was formed in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting of June 12, 2016.
“If you’re an LGBTQ+ person in the seven-county region of Central Florida, the Alliance makes sure you have everything you need to thrive,” Bell said. “If there are obstacles, we have ways to help you navigate past those – partnering with member organizations, government and social services and education.”
Members include the onePULSE Foundation, Equality Florida and Pride Orlando, for example. To be a member, an organization must have at least one program specifically designed for the LGBT community.
Bell’s life has been shaped by both religion and the Pulse tragedy.
He’s a Florida native from Crestview, located in the panhandle. His mother’s family has been in the state since the 1840s, his father’s since the 1890s. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Florida and then went to seminary school in Kentucky.
Bell, 38, was the lead pastor for the Spring of Life United Methodist Church in Orlando for four years until June 2018. He said at the time he’d been questioning many aspects of his life.
“I’d met gay people living their lives out in the open, challenging the fundamental religious beliefs I was taught. It kept chipping away at my prior convictions. As a pastor I told folks – ‘God loves you as you are’ – and I had to apply that to myself,” Bell said.
Bell still identifies as a Christian, but is no longer a practicing pastor. As a member of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida, however, he’s become outspoken about religious discrimination against the LGBT community.
“There are segments of the faith community that are affirming,” Bell said. “But there are things that need to change.”
Bell said he went through a gay conversion therapy of his own; although not in the way people might typically think of, like when a kid is sent off to a conversion camp.
“You’re told to pray and ask for God to change that you're gay,” he said. “I was exposed to those ideas and absorbed them, but never in a formal therapy setting. I’ve always known I’m gay, but didn’t have a space to express it.”
He’d eventually get support from a mental health counselor. Bell began to open himself up more to the LGBT community, too.
Josh Bell (fourth from right) recently joined members and supporters of the transgender community to announce that the Alliance would serve as the local host organization for the National Trans Visibility March when it comes to Orlando on Oct. 9. Courtesy photo.
Like so many, Bell remembers where he was when he heard about the Pulse shooting – he was getting ready for church.
“It’d already been a horrible weekend in Orlando,” Bell said. (Singer Christina Grimmie of “The Voice” TV show had been shot and killed and an alligator at a Disney World hotel had killed a two-year-old boy.) “As the day unfolded, I went to church and got updates throughout the morning. The numbers [of dead] kept rising. We had three services at my church and by the third we were more aware of the magnitude. There were so many layers to that day.”
As others did, Bell started to worry about his gay friends.
“If you knew someone in Orlando who was gay you were texting and checking in on them,” he said.
The community responded to immediate needs, he said, and there were vigils and services. Bell said the interfaith community in Central Florida showed its support. Many churches held services the year the tragedy took place, and some a year later, but Bell said there’s been little interaction with the LGBT community since.
Bell said as a pastor at the time he did what he could – sharing information about blood drives and offering his church for funeral services. At the first-year milestone of the tragedy he opened up the church’s sanctuary and lit candles.
At 2 a.m. on the morning of the first milestone, he woke out of sleep. He’d known there was a gathering planned at the Pulse site at 5 a.m.
“I don’t live very close and it was the middle of the night,” Bell said. “I woke up and had this sharp pain in my leg – it hadn’t happened before and hasn’t since. I said ‘OK God, if you want me to drive downtown at 2 a.m. I will,’ and no joke at that moment a friend texted me and said ‘Are you here?’”
Bell went to the Pulse site and joined the crowd.
“The Pulse is a sacred site. It feels different there, especially when people gather,” he said. “That was another milestone moment in my journey. About a year after that I came out.”
Bell said he’s happy to report that the overwhelming response from most members of his congregation was supportive. At the time, he was married with two small children. No longer married, he said he’s now grateful to be a dad and in a positive co-parenting situation.