Congregations respond with forgiveness, activism, and increased security.
“In my mind, it’s clear that these events were hate crimes,” said the Rev. Henry Simoni-Wastila. “They were intended to send a theological message of hate about our beliefs, or better, a misunderstanding of our beliefs.” Scrawled on the table was the message, “You don’t believe in God. You (expletive).” There was also a message that the congregation should “want to be more Christian.”
Simoni-Wastila said the congregation has spent a lot of time dealing with the incidents. “It’s made people afraid and anxious,” he said and some events have been cancelled. But he said a number of congregants have chosen the path of forgiveness. “Many members have expressed concern for the person who committed the vandalism, realizing people who do these things are not at peace with themselves.”
The local sheriff’s office is investigating and the church has also taken measures to deter any further acts by removing some trees and shrubs close to the building, installing more locks, and adding lighting. “The actual damage from the vandalism is not that much, but we’ve spent about $5,000 on these other measures,” said Simoni-Wastila. He said the church property is on a well-traveled road, but the building itself is a little secluded.
Simoni-Wastila said he’s tried to counsel each church member individually about the events and also delivered a sermon on the topic. “We want to acknowledge everyone’s feelings and focus them on feelings of compassion and forgiveness,” he said, “while also asking for accountability.”
Vandalism also occurred at the 233-member UU Church of Delaware County in Media, Pa., on November 10 when a rainbow flag was stolen, then returned the next night burned and partially shredded. The Rev. Peter Friedrichs said an identical flag had been stolen a year ago and the congregation did not replace it until this fall.
The flag had been up about two weeks when it was stolen. It disappeared during an evening Interweave-sponsored potluck and dialogue on gay-straight relations. Interweave is an organization actively working to end oppression based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It is an affiliate organization of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.
When the flag was returned to its place the following night in damaged condition, the church contacted police and then organized a series of candlelight vigils at the outdoor sign where the flag was posted. The vigils were followed by an interfaith service on November 21, which was attended by about 130 people. "There were people from the BuxMont UU Fellowship in Warrington, Pa., whose marriage equality banner was vandalized earlier this year and we also had representatives from a Catholic church and a Metropolitan Community Church," Friedrichs said. The congregation will also present a public forum on diversity and the impact of hate crimes.
Friedrichs said, “We’ve had the usual reactions of pain and anger and a little bit of fear, but also a great deal of determination. This has galvanized us. One night last week we had tornado warnings and a thunderstorm and still had 15 people show up for a vigil. They insisted on holding it out by the sign rather than someplace indoors.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.