New Hampshire church holds vigil after LGBTQ welcome sign repeatedly vandalized
When members of the Westmoreland United Church gathered to remove graffiti that defaced their church rainbow sign, people in the community joined in to help.
Pastor Lynn Wickberg said that the sign, installed only weeks earlier outside the Westmoreland, New Hampshire church, was one way the UCC congregation intended to live into being welcoming. It had been found covered with racist and homophobic messages on the morning of Nov. 9. Though volunteers quickly cleaned the sign, new symbols were discovered there the following morning. A state trooper who assessed the damage confirmed that these symbols represented white supremacy groups.
The church sits in the center of the small town near the local school and town hall, where many pass. Conversations with community members who joined the cleanup efforts led to the idea of holding a vigil on the church steps. Parents made a particular request — that it be held early enough to bring their kids.
In response, Wickberg and her small, mostly older congregation planned a Nov. 15 vigil “to not focus on the hate and the hurt, but to be focused on what we value, what we are striving to live into, what we want children to learn.”
The Westmoreland United congregation’s journey to becoming Open and Affirming (ONA) had taken over two years, with “a lot of fear and hurt going back eight or nine years,” Wickberg said. The ONA discussion caused a division in the church, and the former pastor and a significant portion of the congregation left to form a new church, causing painful rifts between family, friends and coworkers.
After the congregation approved a motion to officially become an ONA church in Jan. 2022, there were people resistant to hanging out a pride flag, said Jeanie Sy, chair of the church’s ONA committee. They initially hung a banner with artwork and the words “weaving our voices together.”
In May, the members decided to more directly communicate their LGBTQ welcome with the current sign, installed in Oct., just two weeks before the vandalism.
“Putting out there visibly and publicly signage like that, different people had concern,” said Wickberg. After the vandalism incident, “more than one person said ‘We knew this was going to happen.’”
A sign of solidarity
But when the racist and homophobic symbols showed up, the community and local news showed up too. Over 100 people attended the vigil on the Westmoreland United Church steps, including community members, New Hampshire Conference Minister Gordon Rankin, other clergy, the local interfaith group, LGBTQ advocates and elected officials.
“Folk in so many ways had been hurt by this either for themselves or for those they know and care about, and for our world and community,” said Wickberg. “Out of something so hurtful, it has been incredibly heartwarming and encouraging to speak up and say ‘this is not okay’ and be in solidarity in the ways we try to live into peace, compassion and justice.”
On the brisk Tuesday evening, Wickberg read the congregation’s ONA covenant and invited the children to the front and read the book “We Loved Anyway” by Kristi Saviers McGuire. The crowd lit candles that the church had on hand for their Christmas Eve services, and Wickberg invited them to sing “This Little Light of Mine” together. People stayed and chatted following the vigil.
The vigil highlighted the importance of the church’s journey for Sy.
“All these people from all the towns around the church, and I thought, oh my goodness, sometimes when things happen in the church and you have half the congregation leave because they don’t believe in the direction you’re going, you wonder, ‘Where’s God? We need God,’” she said. “That night, God was there.”
A sign for the community
The restored sign remains in front of the church with words like “inclusion” and “love” to name what each color in the rainbow flag represents. A layer of plastic wrap has been stretched across it to add a small layer of protection.
“We believe in being an ONA church and we believe in every line that sign says,” Sy said. “That to me is the important part — what each of those lines stand for. To be able to read it is the reason we put it like we did in plexiglass rather than hanging it. We wanted people to be able to read what that flag means. No one should be opposed to those words.”
While some people have asked if the church should change to a smaller symbol or take the sign down, Wickberg said the community response demonstrates how important it is to keep the sign on display.
“This isn’t easy, but we’re trying to do right. We hope it doesn’t get defaced again, but there’s never any promise of that,” she said.“ Now we’ve heard loud and clearly that this is the church’s sign, but it’s also the sign speaking for and with many in this community.”
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