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Victim Impact Statement

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.

Sincerely,

The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Senior Minister

Comments

  1. Preach it sister! Such amazing words of allowing love over hatred from the mouth of one who has been personally impacted. Very inspiring and a great reminder that the burden of hate is just too great to bear. The picture of gathering together at table “guided by a spirit both wild and holy“ as both unexpected “friends and enemies of Jesus” Love…we must choose love…every time! thank you for your heart!

    1. Thank you, pastor! What this doesn’t show are the tears and prayers and anger leading up to this piece. Or the short temper I had with a congregant the day of the trial. But I kept looking to mentors and God so that I didn’t stay in or act from unproductive stances. It was a learning experience, to be sure.

  2. I am 100% certain of the truth and value of your words to choose love over hate. But the most important thing that I gain from reading your letter is that we, as humans, must be reminded constantly of the need to make this choice. It is so very easy to slip back and take the easy way out – to hate. This must be one of the most important messages we need to all help spread. While this does not help us understand the actions of this man, I can again and very effectively use one of my all time favorite movie quotes… “there are no answers, there are only choices.”. Thank-you for all that you do and know that this particular straight guy will proudly stand my your side – anytime.

  3. Hello Eileen.

    Although I do not approve of Mr. Martinez’s criminal actions against not only the personal property of the church, but also his attack against your faith; I must ask you a question. I am a libertarian at heart. One of my core principles is to live and let live provided my pocket is being picked and my leg not broken (Poor Richard’s Almanac reference).

    Do you think it is fair to sentence this man to prison for 15 years for what amounts to petty theft, reckless use of fire, and being incredibly demeaning?

    After a little digging, I discovered that something as severe as felony convictions of manslaughter in the state of Iowa warrants up to 5 years in prison.
    https://www.keeganlegal.com/blog/2018/november/what-is-the-crime-of-involuntary-manslaughter-in/

    I must admit that I do not know too much about this specific case other than what I have read from The Blaze.
    https://www.theblaze.com/news/man-sentenced-to-15-years-in-prison-for-burning-lgbtq-flag

    Perhaps I am missing something else. Regardless, I would like to know your opinion on the matter. Had you been the judge, how many years would you have sentence Mr. Martinez?

    Thank you for your time. I look forward to your response.

    1. What terrific questions, Chris, thank you.

      From my understanding of the judge’s comments, and the explanation offered by the county attorney, Mr. Martinez’s sentence is much higher than we might expect for three reasons:

      1. He is a habitual offender and Iowa increases penalties as convictions add up.

      2. He is a violent offender. Due to the nature of his previous convictions in Iowa, Missouri, and Texas, the judge felt that Mr. Martinez needs time to rehabilitate and the community needs to be kept safe. Mr. Martinez agreed.

      3. His crime comes with a “hate crime enhancement.” Because this was not simple vandalism but an intentional act of domestic terrorism against a protected class of people, Mr. Martinez’s sentence was more severe. This is, in part, a message to others who might want to target people for being gay or black or Jewish, etc.

      Early on in the process I asked the prosecuting attorney if I/my church might enter into a restorative justice process rather than a strictly judicial one. I am more interested in building a human connection with Mr. Martinez than building a cell around him. However, after experiencing the violence of his speech and body language first hand, and hearing his willingness to be violent again, incarceration does feel completely warranted. In the meantime, I will continue to pursue restorative opportunities with Mr. Martinez.

      I hope I have been clear and this helps in your understanding of the process and outcome.

      Pr. Eileen

  4. Thank you for these beautifully articulated words. You lead through grace, forgiveness, and empathy! I am so grateful for your advocacy, your compassion, your commitment, and your bravery. And I stand beside you in love, peace, and justice as best as I can. So much love to you! And many prayers for Mr. Martinez!

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