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How Congregations Can Respond to Hate Crimes

February 1, 2013

If you’re fortunate, you’ll never arrive at your meetinghouse to find your rainbow flag or marriage equality banner ripped, defaced with swastikas, burned, or simply stolen. But what if you do? How should you respond?

Late one Saturday afternoon in 2001, at First Parish of Sudbury, Mass., a passerby noticed that swastikas had been spray-painted onto rainbow flag symbols on two street-side church signs. He notified police, who contacted the congregation. That same day members of the congregation removed the swastikas, but the perpetrators returned and drew them again. This time they also stole a rainbow flag flying at the entrance to the meetinghouse.

The congregation spoke out immediately, notifying local and state officials, other clergy, and the school district. On Monday, two days after the defacement, the congregation held an emergency meeting. It concluded the swastikas and the flag theft were acts of hate and that it was a problem that belonged to the whole community, not just First Parish.

On Tuesday the Rev. Katie Lee Crane, minister at First Parish from 1998 to 2011, gave media interviews. School officials and local clergy expressed support. On Wednesday the town governing board issued a strongly worded statement in support, condemning all acts of hate. Local clergy launched plans for a Vigil Against Hate the following Sunday. Several other churches began flying rainbow flags.

On Sunday close to 1,000 people attended the Vigil Against Hate at First Parish. “The sight of all those people overflowing the sanctuary and every other available space in the meetinghouse, then streaming out, singing and lighting candles, was something never to forget,” said Crane.

Crane, interviewed in 2012, said that soon after the defacement occurred there was an active discussion among her congregants about whether to downplay the incident because it was probably the act of “just kids.” It was, in fact, local high school students. The congregation decided not to downplay it but to pursue justice, hoping that early intervention might keep these youth from further acts of hate.

The three youth did appear in court and were placed on probation, which included community service, restitution, and attending a diversity awareness program.

Months after the vandalism, Crane summed up the congregation’s and the community’s response in a paper she wrote with two members of the congregation: “This story—the story of hate crimes committed against a house of worship—turned into a magnificent story of an American community at its best. Political, religious, social, educational, and economic boundaries were put aside as people from all corners invested in creating a safe, just, and compassionate community for all its members.”

She added, “Young people from the schools and churches were fully engaged. Adult leaders facilitated open dialogue with all parties. No federal funding or facilitation could have accomplished what this small group of committed citizens did in the way of community building. This is authentic community development—an investment of human interest in humankind. You can’t buy that or legislate it.”

At the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, N.Y., staff arrived one morning in 2006 to find their “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right” banner, which had hung high on the side of the building, cut in half. After recovering from the initial shock, staff and lay leaders sat down to decide what to do.

“We knew it would be important to develop a plan of response within 24 hours,” said the Rev. Jennifer Crow, who, at the time was associate minister at First Unitarian. She now serves First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, Minn., as minister of program life.

The vandalism was discovered on a Monday morning. Within hours the congregation was notified by email. The same day a press release, in which the congregation announced it would not be silenced, was created and sent out. Crow did at least one interview in the first 24 hours and several others after that.

The following Saturday there just happened to be a Pride parade in Rochester. Members of the congregation marched with both the damaged banner and a new one. The next day the worship services at First Unitarian focused on LGBT issues, including the vandalism. The new banner was hung after the service, at a planned ceremony that drew many townspeople.

Crow noted, “Part of my sermon that Sunday was about the pastoral dimension. Someone had taken aim at our sanctuary. It can be a difficult thing to have your church targeted, especially for LGBT members. To call that out was very important.”

She said the vandalism created an opportunity to develop stronger connections with the larger community and other faith leaders. “People from the neighborhood came by with checks to help pay for the banner. We got a lot of support from other faith leaders.”

The act of vandalism changed the congregation in some ways, she believes. “We perhaps felt more powerful in speaking up on human rights issues. We felt that people heard what we were saying. We had a greater sense that what we were doing mattered.”

Jill Goddard, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s public relations director, recommends that congregations do the following when there is vandalism or there are other attacks on LGBT or marriage equality symbols:

  • Notify the police. Such vandalism often constitutes a hate crime, depending on local laws. Take pictures of the damage.
  • Notify the UUA. “We will have resources that will be helpful, depending on the situation,” said Goddard.  The UUA’s public relations office is available at pr@uua.org. This email is also monitored outside of normal business hours, she noted. In addition to the public relations office, also contact your respective UUA district staff.
  • Notify the congregation as soon as possible, ideally within hours, to head off rumors and keep everyone informed. Says Goddard: “You can decide if notification is done by email or during a Sunday service. Describe what happened and how it is being resolved. Give members a feedback means so they feel safe, comfortable, and included.”
  • After notifying the congregation, let the media know. Identify contacts at the local paper and TV and radio stations. Be sure to notify them also of any follow up events, such as a rededication ceremony. Identify a spokesperson and make that person available for interviews.
  • Invite the city council or other governing body to adopt a resolution condemning the vandalism. Also notify your local ministerial council. Other faith leaders will be some of your earliest and strongest supporters.

Goddard added that it is useful to develop an action plan before you need it. “Having a crisis plan is always beneficial. Decide who will speak for the congregation and what the major talking points will be.” It’s also helpful, she noted, to attend a media training before you actually need it. Such trainings are often available through UUA districts.

At the BuxMont UU Fellowship at Warrington, Pa., police were notified immediately when a Civil Marriage is a Civil Right banner was stolen in late July 2006. Leaders held off on telling the press until they had a response planned, said the Rev. Daniel Schatz. The congregation ordered a new banner then held a rededication service three weeks after the theft, when then-UUA President the Rev. William Sinkford was to be in the area.

Through the media and by special invitation, the larger community was invited to the rededication service. The media also covered the event. At the end of the service, participants exited the building carrying the banner and singing "Standing On the Side of Love." The banner was hung and dedicated. Said Schatz, “As a result of all this our public ministry was major news in the local paper twice, and we had far more of an impact than we otherwise would have. It was enough of a success that I've been contacted a few times for pointers from other congregations in similar situations.”

In 2009, First Parish of Watertown, Mass., staff came to work on a Tuesday to discover the congregation’s rainbow flag had been burned while attached to the building. The police were notified and they conducted nighttime patrols and set up surveillance cameras. The next Sunday the congregation had a meeting to talk about the flag burning and determine a response. It appointed a committee that decided to hold a public event the following Saturday on the town square. That event, at which First Parish minister the Rev. Mark Harris and leaders of other faiths reaffirmed their support for LGBT rights, was attended by around 300 people.

That demonstration was followed by a march—led by police—to the church for the rededication of a new flag. In addition, the town council passed a resolution condemning the flag burning.

Harris says: “I would say the central things in this whole process were having a meeting immediately after the burning for the entire congregation to air feelings, gaining a sense of congregational solidarity, and making a plan on how to respond. Then, it was important to reach out to the community. We had such a great response from police, town leaders, the press, etc., including support in staging our public event.”

As he said in his remarks that day at the public event, “Today we restore a sense of welcome and affirmation, well being and peace to all in this our community of First Parish, of Watertown, of greater Boston, and the world.”

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, December 19, 2013.

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