As part of the sentencing phase for the hate crime committed at my church, I wrote a victim impact statement for submission to the court. Our neighbor, the defendant, will have the opportunity to read it before the sentencing hearing and respond.
This process has been a new professional challenge for me as it is also quite personal. I am one of the people our neighbor would see dead. But as a pastor, the role I am paid to fulfill at the church, my work is to very specifically not draw attention to myself, but point always toward God.
Finding the balance has been hard, particularly since each round of external homophobia we have experienced has become more physical and more violent. How do I encourage straight and cis-gendered people to continue to come to a space where I, at times, feel fearful myself?
By always pointing to God.
There is nothing about the gospels that is safe but, for me, they are the gateway and the guide to building a world that is safe, safe for all.
Below is my letter to the court. I’ll let you know how sentencing turns out, and how Mr. Martinez responds to my hope that we might meet across God’s table.
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Story County Court
1315 S. B Ave.
Nevada, IA 50201
December 5, 2019
As followers of God along the Way of Jesus Christ, our congregation expects to get into “good trouble,” to use the words of civil rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis. When we stake our lives on stories of walking, talking, feeding, healing, praying, teaching, resting, and resisting, we will inevitably come up against those who do not have ears to hear or hearts to listen. We are practiced in shaking the dust off our feet and moving on, as our Bible instructs.
That does not mean, however, that acts of violence against our witness are inconsequential, that they do not leave marks. The actions of our neighbor, Mr. Martinez, caused us to feel fear and confirmed our worst fears. There are people in our community who believe that our church is an appropriate target for hatred, harassment, and violence, just as others saw Mother Emanuel AME, the Tree of Life Synagogue, and the Pulse Nightclub, though to truly gruesome and devastating degrees, before us. This confirms that our LGBTQIA+ children, youth, and adults and our queer parents, siblings, and children yet walk in danger every day for how God knit them, fearfully and wonderfully, in their mother’s wombs. Mr. Martinez’s testimony and the evidence presented in court further intensified that fear and made violently clear that we do not live in God’s beloved kin-dom, but in the destructive and petty kingdoms of humanity.
Fear, however, does not have the final say. One of my spiritual mentors is The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King lived daily under the threat of murder, as did his entire congregation and his entire movement. They had generations of bloody, burning knowledge about how far white America would go to silence them and to protect the silencers. Young Emmett Till’s killers, after all, walked away free, laughing. But Dr. King did not let dehumanizing rhetoric or actual bombs poison his soul; his faith wouldn’t allow fear or its cousin, hatred, take hold. During his last Christmas Day sermon Dr. King preached “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself…and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear.”
I saw that terrible burden on Mr. Martinez’s shoulders in court. I saw the terrible toll his hatred of queer people has taken on his mind, his heart, and now his very life. Hatred has cost him his freedom; hatred has cost him his time with his family; hatred has cost him his livelihood and his community. We will not take on that burden. We remain buoyed, instead, by love.
As Christians, we—the part of the body of Christ that is Ames UCC—are united in baptism and at God’s table with Mr. Martinez. All of us have waded into waters on the edge of civilization and promised to be guided by a spirit both wild and holy. It is the strength of that spirit that draws us to the open table that Jesus set for both his friends and his betrayer, that the Christ yet sets for us all. My prayer is that in the future, Mr. Martinez and I will allow ourselves to be gathered in that way by God, to eat of bread and drink of juice, and trust that whatever pain we may have caused each other, Jesus will be present to hold us together.
In the meantime, it’s my prayer that we can both heal from the damage caused by hate.
The Rev. Eileen Gebbie