LAKEVIEW — Someone has repeatedly vandalized a Lakeview church’s signs supporting the LGBTQ+ community over the past year — but church members said the attacks have only strengthened their resolve.
Supportive messages displayed on a chalkboard outside Holy Covenant United Methodist Church, 925 W. Diversey Parkway, have been repeatedly erased for the past year, said the Rev. Jennifer Stephens.
The messages included sentiments like, “You Are Loved,” “Support Transgender Youth,” “Male, female, transgender and nonbinary are made in the image of the Holy One.”
Someone also covered the sign in food waste and used a permanent marker to cover the kind words with Bible verses that are sometimes used to degrade LGBTQ people, Stephens said.
“The more they would erase it, the more bold I would get with my messages,” Stephens said.
In the past month, the vandalism escalated, Stephens said. Somebody broke the wooden post that held the church’s Pride flag, disrupted a service by yelling about how the church is blasphemous for including LGBTQ+ people and stole a picture of Jesus with a rainbow from inside the sanctuary.
“To even get up there, they had to jump or really take time to get it down,” Stephens said. “It was a wooden flag post, and they broke it. It couldn’t have been easy to do.”
“My mission is to be even louder, to make sure as many people as I can reach know that they are loved, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community, because that’s who the church has been harming for a very long time.”
Because the incidents have gotten more aggressive and frequent, Stephens filed a police report. The Police Department didn’t respond to request for comment.
“My concern was for the community,” Stephens said. “I didn’t want whoever this individual is to come in and disrupt our service or cause trauma to the children or to anybody in our church.”
Stephens said people can help out by continuing to alert the church when they notice vandalism. It would also be helpful if supporters could take photos or videos if they catch someone in the act and they feel safe doing so, Stephens said.
United Methodist Church in Rogers Park faced similar issues last year. Somebody repeatedly stole its supportive signs for the LGBTQ+ community.
Holy Covenant United Methodist Church was “founded to fight injustice” May 4, 1884, and has a long history of supporting progressive causes, Stephens said.
“The date was chosen to say that we will march forth, that we’re always going to speak up for those that are being oppressed, those at are being harmed,” Stephens said.
In the early days of the HIV/AIDs crisis, Holy Covenant operated a clinic in the sanctuary and was one of the few churches to bury people who died from the disease, Stephens said.
This year, Stephens invited a drag queen to read a storybook about acceptance during the church’s Easter celebration.
For the past 30 years, the church has hosted Dignity Diner, a weekly dinner open to anyone in need of food. Members of the congregation serve the food and eat with attendees. After each dinner, attendees watch a movie together, “which gives us the opportunity to actually build relationships with each other,” Stephens said.
In addition to providing for people in need and affirming members of the LGBTQ+ community, the church has long supported the Civil Rights Movement.
Members of the Black Panther Party hosted meetings at the church in the ’60s. When police killed some of the civil rights’ group’s leaders, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, during an apartment raid in December 1969, Holy Covenant hosted memorial services and rallies to demand authorities release more information about their deaths.
Members of the church hid Hampton’s mattress in the sanctuary, and it was used as evidence to show the police killed him while he was asleep in bed, Stephens said.
“This church has a long history of standing up for people, and someone tearing up my sign or breaking my flagpole is not going to stop us from spreading that message,” Stephens said. “But we do want them to stop because it costs money to replace these things, and I want our community to feel safe.”
The vandalism started shortly after Stephens was appointed to lead the church in March 2022. Stephens relocated from Texas in search of a supportive environment where she could be an openly queer pastor, she said.
“I’m more outspoken than the previous pastor was,” Stephens said. “I do a lot to make sure people know that we’re inclusive because I think it’s extremely important that individuals walking by this place know that, especially for those who think they’re not loved by God. I believe being a protector is my calling and that I’m here to share that God loves us for who we are right now.”
Amy Bailey, who’s been a member of the church since 2013, said she’s never seen the church experience this kind of backlash for its longstanding support of marginalized people.
“The neighborhood and community have always been so incredibly supportive of the church in general and our ministries, especially Dignity Diner,” Bailey said. “My guess is that it’s an isolated individual or maybe a couple people. We’ve always been so appreciative of the fantastic support we get in the neighborhood. … This is completely out of the norm.”
While volunteering during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Bailey “saw the real toll homophobia can have on a community,” she said. Bailey said she was appalled by the ways people “weaponized” Christianity to dismiss people’s suffering.
“It was absolutely devastating to the individuals who were dying and their families,” Bailey said. “I decided then that I was absolutely not going to affiliate myself with a church that didn’t take a very public stance against homophobia.”
Stephens and Bailey said they’re committed to showing LGBTQ+ people they can find safety and community in many church congregations.
“I believe it’s time for us to pull out a blowhorn and out-yell those that are yelling hate speech,” Stephens said. “It’s time for us to match that and cover that up, so individuals know that they’re not the majority. They’re just loud.”
Bailey said she hopes whoever is vandalizing the church’s affirming signs can learn “to love, respect and honor all of humanity and its beautiful diversity.”
“I feel sorry for them, that they have such a narrow definition and understanding of what divinity is, what the relationship between God and humanity is,” Bailey said. “Frankly, I believe hateful theology is wrong and that it relies on Bible verses that maintain the current power structure and inequities.
“That’s not what Jesus did. He took on power structures and inequities and tried to make more room for people who had been socially stigmatized, excluded and denied access to power, justice and freedom.
“I want to make sure that whoever’s doing this knows that they’ve only strengthened our resolve. They’ve only reminded us what we’re up against.”
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