The vandalized banner reads, “God is still speaking.” Its words are placed amid rainbow stripes, a symbol of inclusiveness to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning individuals.
“We don’t know who placed the green sign here or who stitched up the banner,” says Kirk. He says that although it may have been a member of the church, the church’s structure is rooted in democracy, with all decisions made by the congregation. Kirk was in conversation with members of the church about how to handle the vandalized sign and whether it should be stitched, and they had decided to discuss it together after their usual service on Sunday.
“So I don’t think this would have been done by someone who was part of that ongoing process,” says Kirk. “It seems to me that a conversation is happening on our front lawn that is about the community. Religious folks, non-religious folks. I think it’s a real opportunity for our community and our valley to engage with issues that we sometimes feel separated from but apparently are not.”
Kirk says the banner is very important to the congregation and what it believes. “This small banner in this small town is significant to us,” says Kirk. The church purposely chose the banner’s message over ‘All are welcome.’”
“Certain churches say ‘All are welcome,’” says Kirk. “But while you’re welcome to attend there, in some cases, who you are may be equated with sin. I’ll let those churches speak about their own theology, but that’s why we put that flag up and not one that says ‘All are welcome.’”
The banner, which was put up only a few months ago, designates the church’s status as an “open and affirming church.”
“Open and affirming is a designation within the United Church of Christ denomination to say that we are not just open to people of diverse backgrounds, sexual orientation, gender identity, but also that we are affirming of them as they are,” says Kirk. “And that is in contrast to saying anyone is welcome, but part of who you are is something we may reject.”
The phrase itself, “God is still speaking,” says Kirk, refers to the belief held by the church’s congregants that things experienced as new or diverse are not merely concepts that individuals are tasked with accepting, but are rather God speaking in new ways.
“Our church sees itself as trying to follow our tradition of Christianity, but fully involved in the world we live in,” says Kirk. “We experience God in new ways in our particular world that we’re living in.”
Kirk says that, for example, 50 years ago, churchgoers may not have given much thought to LGBTQ individuals. “And therefore they would not have affirmed those individuals,” says Kirk.
But today, the world includes awareness about LGBTQ individuals. Through that awareness and through relationships with LGBTQ people, Kirk says, the church’s congregants believe their experience of God is deepened.
“Christians in general believe that human beings are made in the image of God,” says Kirk. “We believe we learn more about God’s image through LGBTQ people. Of course, God has always been what God has always been, but we are now blessed to be able to experience God more fully through the diversity of all people.”
Kirk says he believes that North American Christianity in general has not come quickly enough to the defense of LGBTQ people or people of ethnic minorities in times of crisis.
“Regardless of how proud we can be now that we would put up a sign like this, we all bear the burden of the past sins of the church,” says Kirk. “We might not have control over how other people interpret Christianity and we may not be responsible for historical Christian-based homophobia, but we are taking responsibility for Christian-based homophobia that still exists in our town and we are offering an alternative that we think is much more in line with the love ethic of Jesus.”
Kirk says he hopes that all local churches will take a stand in supporting their neighbors. “I would call upon all the churches in the area that identify themselves as Christian to speak against hate speech of any kind and to also make clear what their true intentions are and what their true ideas are about our neighbors who are LGBTQ and are ethnic minorities,” says Kirk.
Asked if he was surprised that an act of intolerance would happen in Dover, Kirk says no.
“I think that here, sometimes, a lot of people who identify as liberals are very surprised when something like this happens,” says Kirk. “But it doesn’t surprise me that someone would do this. Sometimes in Vermont, we have the tendency to think that our local discourse is beyond some of the other trends that we’ve seen in the United States, especially since last November. And I think that’s a bit naive. There is always a need for increased compassion and compassionate action.”
Kirk says he himself doesn’t feel victimized by the vandalism. “As a straight, cisgendered, white, North American man, I am not the victim of this action,” says Kirk, noting that not feeling personally victimized through the incident is a feeling he shares with several congregants.
“Since this happened, my experience of this whole church has been less about thinking that we’ve been violated in some way and more about wondering what healing needs to happen in this community and what conversation is playing out on the front lawn,” says Kirk.