Churches in Ohio, California attacked for sponsoring drag shows
Two United Church of Christ congregations have been targeted by far-right groups for sponsoring drag shows in their respective communities.
Loomis Basin Congregational UCC in Loomis, Calif., recently canceled its fundraiser. Later, the church postponed its Sunday, March 26 in-person worship service due to ongoing threats. Meanwhile, Community Church of Chesterland, Ohio, was firebombed with Molotov cocktails a day earlier.
Both churches have been receiving hate messages and threats. Both also have been attacked and maligned by white nationalist organizations. And both congregations remain deeply committed to their call as Open and Affirming churches and as places of refuge for marginalized people in their communities.
“We’re alarmed and concerned about the rise in threats toward our open communities,” said UCC General Minister and President the Rev. John Dorhauer. “We stand in complete solidarity with them, and we will use every resource we can in keeping them safe and lifting up the voice of justice for the LGBTQ community.”
Targeted by hate
Community Church — located a mere half-hour drive east of the UCC’s national headquarters in Cleveland — has been planning a two-part “Drag Brunch and Story Hour” for April 1, in partnership with a local restaurant.
The event entails a drag-themed fundraiser at the restaurant, followed by a free story hour at the church itself. The paid brunch portion of the event quickly sold out.
“Community Church of Chesterland has been Open and Affirming for 30 years,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Jess Peacock. “There are a lot of churches in the UCC that have become Open and Affirming. But we have been feeling we need to move beyond the words ‘open and affirming’ to ‘open and celebrating.’”
That’s why the congregation wanted to raise money through the brunch to continue to serve as a safe space for LGBTQ+ people.
After the event was advertised, news surfaced that the neo-fascist Proud Boys, designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, would show up to protest. The congregation worked with law enforcement and private security ahead of the event.
Then, on March 25, a week before the scheduled drag show, Molotov cocktails were thrown at the church building.
Despite this, Peacock and their congregation are preparing to host the upcoming event as planned.
Providing safe spaces
Although the church sustained a relatively small amount of damage, the attack destroyed some of its lighting and its front sign — a sign that read, “Please don’t steal flags, happy to give you one,” because of how often the congregation’s Pride flags have been stolen (Peacock estimates “about 120 times”).
“If it wasn’t so hard on the congregation, it would be comedic, this absolute nonsense and focus on us because we have rainbow flags or — gasp — we don’t think gay people are going to hell,” Peacock said, calling the attack “a hate crime.”
Being a strong advocate for local LGBTQ+ people is especially important to Community Church and its pastor.
“If we don’t create the space, there aren’t too many other people that will in Geauga County,” Peacock said.
They explained that the “Drag Brunch and Story Hour” is a response to rising targeting of drag culture and its community, intended to create such a safe space.
“When drag started becoming the controversy du jour … we wanted to lean into that,” Peacock said. “Not to be controversial, because they (drag events) shouldn’t be controversial. Events should be able to happen without people being threatened; without people bringing guns.”
Drag show fundraisers
Providing a safe space also is central to Loomis Basin UCC’s mission. Its pastor, the Rev. Casey Tinnin, founded The Landing Spot, a support group for LGBTQ+ youth.
“For so long, the LGBTQ community was pushed into bars and into the corners of society,” said Tinnin. “What Loomis Basin United Church of Christ has offered is sacred, holy space that is not secular space.”
He recalled encountering many LGBTQ+ people in the church “sobbing because they are trying to overcome the religious trauma of their upbringing.”
This, Tinnin believes, is key to the ministry of Open and Affirming churches: Not just supporting and affirming but relaying a decidedly Christian message: “God loves you, exactly as you are, 100 percent.”
And that, he added, is a “direct threat to a different kind of Christianity” rooted in hate and bigotry.
“I love the United Church of Christ,” Tinnin said. “I came here because I fully believe I could be all of who God made me to be, as a queer person and as a Christian. … There are so many people I’ve meet who said, ‘I didn’t know I could have these values and still go to church,’ or ‘I didn’t know I could be trans and still go to church.’”
To promote this message, The Landing Spot began hosting family-friendly drag shows to raise money for an LGBTQ+ teen youth camp. Its third such fundraiser in the last few years was scheduled to take place at the end of March, using space at the local high school.
But the school district decided to revoke the use of the space for the drag show, and the event was canceled.
‘We stand with our pastor’
After that, Tinnin and Loomis Basin UCC were further targeted. A conversation with Tinnin was recorded by individuals associated with Project Veritas, an organization that SPLC describes as a “hard-right propaganda group.”
A highly edited video that took Tinnin’s words out of context was disseminated by Project Veritas, according to a church press release. Then, Tinnin and Loomis Basin UCC received more serious threats and hateful comments.
“The claims made by this far-right group are outlandish and would be laughable, except we are seeing unprecedented threats of violence and anti-LGBTQ legislation across the country,” said the church’s co-moderator, Sara Bocciardi, in the release. “These attacks are fueled by hate and meant to dehumanize and discredit LGBTQ people. … We stand with our pastor, The Landing Spot and the LGBTQ community.”
The release noted that the activists were “masquerading as parents seeking help and support for their transgender child” when they recorded their conversation with Tinnin. Loomis Basin UCC currently is exploring legal action against Project Veritas.
Tinnin’s home also has been targeted by Proud Boys demonstrations.
Money for more security
Despite the attempts at intimidation, both congregations continue to stand firm in solidarity with the communities they are seeking to uplift. And that includes continued fundraising.
“We’ve raised $20,000 for camp,” Tinnin said, noting that the sum far exceeded the canceled drag event’s original goal. “And now we’re working on the Fight Back Fund,” which would provide legal fees and security for Tinnin and Loomis Basin UCC.
He acknowledged that increased security may be new to some faith communities, but others are unfortunately well acquainted with it.
“My Jewish colleagues said to me, ‘Oh, you don’t have security? How privileged,’” Tinnin said.
More than 2,000 miles away, Community Church of Chesterland, too, is raising money. While the drag event itself is a fundraiser, the congregation also is seeking donations for increased security measures. Those would include cameras and other “common-sense things after someone tries to burn your church down,” as Peacock put it.
On Sunday, March 26, the day after the attack, Peacock and their flock gathered in their worship space. They didn’t hold a regular worship service, but instead spent the hour discussing what happened, how they would respond and what safety precautions they could take.
“When an assault on your safe space happens, it’s important to give people a platform to express themselves,” Peacock said.
They added that, even if the Proud Boys show up Saturday and attempt to disrupt the festivities, they hope that everyone else will remain calm and peaceful: “This is supposed to be a day of celebration and joy.”
Task force assembled after Jan. 6
The UCC has been working to help congregations when such situations arise, with an increase in threats toward progressive churches following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. After that, Dorhauer put together a task force to respond to churches and help connect them to resources, as well as local and federal law enforcement agencies.
The task force is chaired by the Rev. John Edgerton, lead pastor of First United Church of Oak Park, Ill., whose own congregation was targeted by far-right groups.
“I’ve been working on this since 2021, just before the inauguration,” Edgerton said. “And, during that period of time, while I was chairing this task force, my own church got targeted by an international campaign of harassment.”
The group is partnering closely with Conference ministers to develop plans for congregations to prepare for and respond to threats. For now, Edgerton said that any congregation experiencing the kind of threat and or attack like the churches in Loomis and Chesterland can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
With more than 1,800 Open and Affirming UCC churches all across the country — and with LGBTQ+ rights and trans youth threatened daily — the need is clear.
“What many are now seeing as an aberration within Christianity, this embracing of LGBTQ culture, trans culture, drag culture has been a part of the life of the church for as long as we know,” Dorhauer said. “I have personally attended drag shows sponsored by our churches all across our country.”
In fact, he even once served as a judge for a church-affiliated drag show.
“It’s a part of who we are, and it has been for quite some time,” Dorhauer added.
‘The antidote to hate’
The “psychic buildup” of hate-filled messages has taken a toll, Peacock noted, but they also have been buoyed by many messages of support, including from the UCC national setting, “in the midst of a lot of hate and a lot of horrible.”
The recent attacks caused Peacock to think of how, in Germany leading up to the Holocaust, Nazis first attempted to “eliminate” Jewish culture.
“We are quite literally seeing that when it comes to LGBTQ culture, to drag culture, to queer culture,” they said. “And that’s quite frightening to me.”
Yet, Peacock believes that makes their ministry and the ministry of churches like Community Church of Chesterland all the more necessary.
“Rather than shrink from that, we desire to challenge it; we desire to lean into it … to make a statement of ‘not here, and not with us,’” they said.
Heartland Conference Minister the Rev. David Long-Higgins echoed that sentiment. He and leaders in the Conference’s Living Water Association issued a statement in support of Community Church on Monday.
“Love is not a risk-free proposition,” Long-Higgins said. “And when you seek to love those who are vulnerable in your midst, there will be, often, responses that are counter to that deep intention for all God’s beloved to be honored.
“As such, it requires a depth of spirit, of courage, of clarity of conviction and willingness to be faithfully present, so that those who are most marginalized or at risk experience the strength of Christian community in its best forms. That is our call.”
“What the United Church of Christ has offered the country in terms of radical welcome should not be something that we shy away from,” Tinnin said. “We must lean into this message. We must be the antidote to hate, to rejection, to shame.”
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