Speaking to a packed house Friday morning at the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center, Mayor Jack Seiler urged attendees of the 55th annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast to come together for the greater good.
“We have been challenged and will be challenged to live better lives, to practice what we preach and to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk and maybe walk that walk with our Lord,” Seiler said.
The involvement of Jim Daly, of the conservative Christian policy institute Focus on the Family, in this year’s prayer breakfast sparked a backlash from members of South Florida’s sizeable LGBT community. The Mayor received multiple calls to rescind Daly’s invitation and drop out of the event all together.
Related: An Open Letter To Mayor Jack Seiler
Seiler, however, stayed the course and attended the breakfast alone.
“By being here you have confirmed that prayer matters in Fort Lauderdale,” Seiler said during his six minute speech. “You have confirmed that communication matters, that exchanging ideas matter and that faith matters. We need a prayer breakfast. We as a society need a prayer breakfast. We in Fort Lauderdale need a prayer breakfast. As all this debate swirled around, I thought My God, now more than ever we need a prayer breakfast.”
Meanwhile, as prayer breakfast attendees heard from Seiler protesters assembled outside to denounce the event.
“The Mayor has embarrassed himself with the way he went about this,” said Wayne Besen, a gay rights activist and founder of Truth Wins Out, a non-profit organization that stands up to anti-LGBT prejudice. “He looks insensitive. His reaction is what everybody hates about politics.”
Joining Besen on the sidewalk of A-1-A was Laurie Woodward-Garcia, a Miramar resident who said she was “disgusted” by Seiler.
“I’m a Catholic mother and I want my daughter to know she can love whoever she wants,” Woodward-Garcia said. “The suffering of LGBT people must stop.”
Daly was the first special guest to speak. He told a story of how he worked with Ted Trimpa, a gay lobbyist to combat human sex trafficking in Colorado. He also acknowledged that unlikely partnerships could be made after putting aside fundamental differences such as the definition of marriage.
“One of the most important things who have to do as we come together is agree that we’re going to disagree on some core things,” Daly said.
Daly said the Christian community needs to improve its generosity of spirit.
“We have not handled the cultural discussion and debate very well at times,” Daly said. “That’s something I’m trying to lead on. How we can engage people that don’t think the way we think and be generous in spirit to find solutions that our communities desperately need.”
One of those solution seekers is Leslie Tipton. Tipton, pastor of the Church of the Holy SpiritSong, attended the prayer breakfast and introduced herself to Daly.
“He seemed very open and was not judgmental and did not look down upon me,” said Tipton, a married lesbian. “He gave me his email address and I believe he is sincere about opening a dialogue.”
Tipton said she came out to several attendees of the prayer breakfast and never once received a negative response.
“They applauded me for being a bridge builder,” Tipton said. “Nobody reacted poorly to me at all. They were kind. They smiled, we hugged.”
Elsewhere, Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Dean Trantalis had originally planned to attend the prayer breakfast, but withdrew in an 11th hour decision.
“Their views are simply too extreme from gay marriage to reparative therapy to transgender rights,” Trantalis said in a news release. “I would not want any hint of perception that I was condoning the work of Focus on the Family or helping provide Mr. Daly a platform. It is truly unfortunate that Mr. Daly was invited to be the keynote speaker when the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast should be a place for bringing all segments of Fort Lauderdale together in a spirit of peace and harmony.”
Seiler, in his last term as Mayor and rumored to be considering a run for Florida Attorney General, asked the audience to stop yelling and judging and start listening and loving.
“We need to emphasize that we don’t elevate ourselves by knocking others down,” Seiler said, going on to remark, “How awesome would we feel if race, religion, skin color and sexual orientation didn’t trigger bias or prejudice, but instead motivated us to love our neighbor and empowered us to treat others like we would like to be treated.”
In addition to the sidewalk protesters, one attendee was removed from the breakfast for shouting during Daly’s remarks. The man was identified by the Sun-Sentinel as Michael Gagne, a gay man and father to four adopted children.
Gagne shouted “Right message, wrong messenger, hey ho homophobia has got to go!” during Daly’s segment of the program and was promptly escorted out of the ballroom by security.
Editor's Note: The writer of this article is a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, District 93.